Like many of you, my new year started out with ambitions, goals, and a list of achievements that I wanted to accomplish. Three months into the year those lists were sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic. During the last few months, I have navigated the challenges of working remotely and adjusting to the new normal that was created by this unprecedented environment. As weeks transitioned into months my family has made many adjustments, several have been especially beneficial.

My curiosity often begs to question how many of these changes will be sustainable and become a new way of life for us. The pandemic also exposed the fact that as a family we make healthier choices just by eating at home, have rediscovered our love of gardening, and the joy of spending more time together. It is amazing what we learn when we are forced to slow down. However for many this has been a time of uncertainty, fear, and stress. The pandemic has exposed some truths we always knew existed but were unable to address not only within our state but within our nation.

Soon after school closings began I was burdened by the thought of the children in our community who would be at an extreme disadvantage not only adjusting to the new learning environments, but also dealing with food insecurity. The economic inequalities in rural communities create an unequal playing field when it comes to the delivery of education. Access to the internet once considered a luxury, now has become a basic utility. The delivery of that utility continues to be a challenge in rural communities like ours. Virtual learning environments can further be complicated if the child experiences frustration with technological issues. This issue alone exposes that in systems of education there are multiple inequalities that influence learning outcomes.

According to Superintendent Chalk, who appeared on Capitol View over the weekend, great strides have been made to address this inequality. He shared the partnership the Clinton School District has made with Artelco to provide hot spots and ensure that every child could still connect and receive their work. Local businesses stepping up to help our children need to be applauded for their efforts as well. Senator Missy Irvin has led the effort to address this issue state-wide. Senator Irvin’s dedication to this issue influenced the state to allocate $5.17 Million to expand rural broadband and the CARE’S ACT Steering Committee followed with an additional $19.3 Million to this project to bring the total to $25 Million. It is encouraging to see our state lawmakers and local leaders address this issue as a priority. With a return to the classroom in the fall still uncertain, progress on this issue will continue to need to be monitored.

The pandemic also exposed the food insecurities that exist in our county. According to Feeding America’s Christina Martinez, “Sadly, hunger may impact a child’s school performance. Research demonstrates that children from families who are not sure where their next meal may come from are more likely to have lower math scores and repeat a grade, among other challenges.” Deeper reflections on this issue will appear in future columns but I do want to recognize the educators, staff, and volunteers of the Van Buren County school districts. It was not uncommon for me to see a group of teachers and staff unload from a school bus and deliver food to the children of our community. Superintendent Chalk has prioritized food insecurity during the pandemic and recognizes the challenges it presents. The response of the school district on multiple levels to this issue is encouraging and inspiring. Our schools have gone above and beyond in so many ways to ensure that every child is fed, educated, and most importantly that they know that they are cared for by so many in our community.

Many more opportunities were exposed during the pandemic and systemic changes have been made to address these issues on multiple levels. The hope is that the changes that were made will be sustainable and will inspire us to continue to find creative ways to address these inequalities.

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