Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A Rural School Under Pressure To Stay Open: 'People Are Just ... Rough And Tough'


Many schools that have stayed open require students and staff to wear masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But there's still resistance to masks in many places. NPR's Kirk Siegler visited a rural school that's been hit with multiple outbreaks.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: It can feel like a parallel universe when you go from a city where kids are cooped up inside at home doing school virtually to an isolated small town like Bruneau, Idaho.


SIEGLER: Here, the bell has just rung. And kids are emptying out of the elementary school and into the snowy parking lot like it's 2019. No one seems to be wearing a mask, which is just fine with parents like Cassandra Folkman (ph). She's sitting in her idling pickup waiting for her kindergartner and second grader.

CASSANDRA FOLKMAN: I don't make them wear them anywhere we go. I don't wear one and they don't. So...

SIEGLER: Can I ask why?

FOLKMAN: I'm just not scared of the virus, I guess. It seems like it's just another string of flu.

SIEGLER: It's not. COVID-19 has killed more than 1,200 Idahoans so far this year, six times more than the flu has annually in recent seasons. Case numbers have shot up lately in rural America, which skews older and tends to have huge inequality gaps in health care. Yet in Bruneau - population 500 - people pride themselves in being independent. Soraya Pearson (ph) teaches fourth and fifth grade here. She got COVID and was sidelined for six weeks.

SORAYA PEARSON: Like, they feel bad that it's affecting you. But it does not mean that that means we need to change how we think about it at all or how we act when we're at Walmart, whether we are wearing masks or not.

SIEGLER: This truth got even sharper this fall even as COVID began to spread in the two farming towns that make up the joint Bruneau and Grand View school district. As more teachers and students got the virus, administrators had to shut down some classes and move them online temporarily.

RYAN CANTRELL: I think if you had to sum it up in one word, it would be unpredictable.

SIEGLER: By November, things had gotten bad enough that the superintendent, Ryan Cantrell, recommended the school board require masks so they could keep in-person going. Science shows masks reduce the virus' spread. The board voted it down. Cases kept going up.

CANTRELL: And then to find out that more of our students had tested positive for COVID-19. They had then exposed the subs, who were already filling in for some of the teachers who were either out sick or out for self-quarantine. And we simply ran out of substitute teachers.

SIEGLER: Last week, Cantrell had to move every school to virtual for one week after 13 new cases were detected since Thanksgiving.


SIEGLER: They're back in classrooms this week. Cantrell is walking the halls, checking on the health of his staff. And he's virtually alone in wearing a mask. There's not really any social distancing here. And what's more alarming, Cantrell says most students who have tested positive have been asymptomatic.

CANTRELL: And so then what tends to happen is if asymptomatic student comes to school, then the adults are the ones that get it. And usually, they show the symptoms. And they're the ones that get knocked down and get sick from it.

SIEGLER: Still, there's a lot of pressure on him to keep school open for in-person learning. And he gets it. I mean, every time they had to go virtual, especially when the lockdowns came last March, grades tanked. Soraya Pearson, the elementary school teacher who got COVID, says the Internet at home is slow. And it's just hard to reach some kids.

PEARSON: When we have to lose them again, you're like, oh, no. What are they going to be losing this week as they're all at home? Because there's certain kids, you do not see them. They go off the map. Once they're doing online school, they're not doing - they don't log in. Their packets come back, they haven't touched them.

SIEGLER: And monthly testing has started to show that students here are clawing back to the proficiency levels they were at before the pandemic. People here want the schools to do everything they can to stay open, everything except requiring students and teachers to wear masks inside. The school is offering all-virtual for parents who want to keep their kids home. But most are like Brooklyn Kunsky (ph) and want them in school without strict mandates.

BROOKLYN KUNSKY: Our kids don't want to wear masks. Our kids want to have a somewhat normal - if that's even a realistic (laughter) word in the midst of all this - educational experience.

SIEGLER: You hear this a lot here even among teachers and staff. There are outbreaks at schools. Asymptomatic kids bring it home. There's communities spread, yet also the sense of, well, that's just how it is. Kunsky thinks the district is managing the COVID crisis pretty well.

KUNSKY: I think, you know, when you grow up in a rural community or when you live in a rural community, people are - they're just - I don't know - rough and tough. I don't know if that's the right word. But we just make it through.

SIEGLER: She's not scared of the virus even as the number of hospitalizations and deaths in Idaho has doubled in the last six weeks.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise.

(SOUNDBITE OF NITSUA'S "5:21") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.