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In the final part of our series: Students return to classrooms, but educators wonder how to get kids back on track.

Part of a series on rural education under the pandemic.

COURTESY PHOTO: WILL CIOCI/WISCONSIN WATCH - The four children in the Hellenbrand family of rural Dane, Wis., struggled with school in the first half of the 2020-21 school year, including spotty internet service that made online learning difficult. Later this month, the children are scheduled to return to in-person instruction. The Hellenbrands are seen from left, Andy, Lydia, Jillian, Amy, Louis and Reagan on Aug. 22, 2020.Andy and Amy Jo Hellenbrand live on a little farm in south-central Wisconsin where they raise corn, soybeans, wheat, heifers, chickens, goats, bunnies and their four children, ages 5 to 12.

        For the entire fall semester, the quartet of grade school students learned virtually from home, as their district elected to keep school buildings closed.

That has put a strain on the family, as well as the childrens' grades and grammar.

"I definitely feel like they're falling behind," said Amy Jo Hellenbrand. "You just notice certain things as far as their language and how they talk. You're constantly correcting them."

As the first full semester for U.S. schools during the pandemic comes to an end, education experts and parents alike are concerned about its effects on children's academic progress. From Oregon to Virginia, the Mexican border to the Upper Midwest and on Native American reservations across the West, that anxiety is magnified in rural areas, which are far less likely to have access to high-speed or even consistent internet in a time of extensive virtual schooling.

Read More

This is part of a series on rural education during the pandemic:

Oregon educations worry about signs of a resurgent achievement gap

Working through challenges in rural Oregon

Trying to make learning 'magical' in Madras

Learning new tools to engage students from home

Culver teachers connect with kids in person and online

Knock, Knock, look who's here

Gauging students' progress right now is like tracking a panther — both are elusive. It's unclear how far the pandemic has set back learning in the past year, as many states have put temporary holds on regular assessment tests. And many children are not in classrooms for educators to keep tabs on. But some initial research has not been encouraging, with students falling behind, most notably in math.

The push in Oregon and other parts of the United States now is to put children back in classrooms. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that among the 62% of K-12 school districts that had either full or partial in-person instruction, outbreaks of COVID-19 among children have been limited — although the agency said it lacked data to gauge the risk among staff.

"CDC recommends that K-12 schools be the last settings to close after all other mitigation measures have been employed and the first to reopen when they can do so safely," the agency said.

President Joe Biden is proposing $130 billion to provide additional personnel, building upgrades and protective equipment to help schools reopen safely as part of a $1.7 trillion plan to combat coronavirus, provide financial relief and boost the economy.

Some policymakers and education experts also are pushing for a massive tutoring surge to help students recover from the inevitable academic regression.

In New Mexico, more than 32,000 students — one of every 10 enrolled in public education — have been referred to a state-sponsored coaching program, many for being disengaged, regularly missing classes or in danger of failing one or more classes. Fewer than a third of students referred are participating in the coaching sessions, as of Jan. 18.

In some Oregon schools, only half of Latino students were attending on a regular basis at the start of the school year, and students of color were failing high school classes at twice the rate of their white classmates, according to records obtained from several Oregon districts.

Kevin Genisot, superintendent of the rural, 500-student Hurley School District in far northern Wisconsin, is resigned to the same problem.

"We're going to lose kids," Gensiot said. "Every district is going to lose kids. Your high at-risk kids that are not in attendance are in serious jeopardy of not graduating."

A longer version of this article was published by New Mexico In Depth. This article is part of a collaborative reporting project, "was published by New Mexico In Depth." It includes the Institute for NonprofitNews, Underscore/Pamplin Media Group, New Mexico in Depth, Charlottesville Tomorrow, El Paso Matters, Iowa Watch, The Nevada Independent and Wisconsin Watch/The Badger Project. The collaboration was made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. You can read all the Oregon stories in the series at

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