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The Rural Coronavirus Crisis to Come

While cities like New York are the epicenter of the epidemic, smaller communities with scant resources are bracing for impact.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The news that Berea College was closing sent a wave of confusion and fear through the campus. “Some of my friends were in their dorms, and they just heard people screaming when they found out,” Lily, a freshman from Fayette County, West Virginia, told me the day after the announcement, which came the second week of March. “It’s a lot to take in very suddenly, especially because the day before we’re getting emails like, Wash your hands! Everything will be fine!” Students at the college in rural Madison County, Kentucky, were anxious about how friends who didn’t have cars would get home, about returning to unsafe family lives, about graduation and coursework, about money.

A little over a week later, students at Eastern Kentucky University, just up the road from Berea in my hometown of Richmond, were told to be out of their dorms by April 1. Dr. Ginny Whitehouse, a media professor at EKU, told me she was impressed by how quickly the school had rallied to support students—offering faculty consults and loaner laptops—but still worried about what students were going home to. “I don’t know what some students are going to do when it comes to internet service,” she said. “I just don’t know.”

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, images of urban spaces turned hauntingly empty have helped tell the story of the pandemic: the freeway in Los Angeles at rush hour without bumper-to-bumper traffic; tourist attractions like Austin’s Sixth Street boarded up, a near-empty Times Square in New York City. But rural communities are also seeing a rising number of cases, and the threat they face is just as serious: One in five people over the age of 65—one of the most vulnerable populations at risk for serious complications from Covid-19—live in rural areas; accessing medical care for rural patients facing a pandemic will remain logistically difficult, costly, and travel-intensive; and altogether 53 percent of rural Americans lack access to high-speed broadband, making remote work and learning impossible in many households.

In less than a month, the pandemic has exposed the fragility of daily life for millions of people in rural America. Now they’re bracing for the crisis to come.

Berea College is a unique institution nationally: It’s a tuition-free college, with 70 percent of its student body coming from Appalachia or Kentucky. More than 90 percent of students receive federal Pell Grants, and the mean family income of a first-year student is $30,000. Students work on campus in a variety of capacities—from janitorial work to serving food in the cafeteria—as part of the school’s “labor program” to help offset other enrollment costs.

And while Berea has offered help to students navigating the stress and logistics of returning home—offering travel assistance to some students who need it; continuing to pay work-study money to students despite their not being on campus—it still might not be enough. Anywhere between 20 to 25 percent of Berea College’s student body doesn’t have reliable internet access at home, making keeping up with remote coursework decidedly more difficult.

“Each one of the faculty members has been asked to work with their individual classes and students to see what they can do within the student’s capability,” Tim Jordan, a member of the media team at the college, told me. “Berea is a residential campus; we’re not licensed to do online courses. That’s not something we’re really set up to do.”

But students say the rollout of remote work has felt disjointed. “One professor is making us turn our final paper in via email, and if we can’t, then print it out and send it through the mail. That’s still not really accommodating if you don’t have Wi-Fi access; it would be easier for me to drive to a McDonald’s or something to get free Wi-Fi than to find someone to print papers, which I’m sure is the case for many students,” Kati Hurd, a junior from Rodgersville, Tennessee, told me through Twitter.

Keeping up with classes might be difficult, too, as other responsibilities arise. “I’ll have to get a job when I go home in order to support myself on top of all this. The college is still paying us for labor even if we’re not on campus, which I appreciate, but it’s not enough to afford to go back home when my mother can hardly make ends meet just for herself,” Hurd wrote.

Students may also be walking into radically different circumstances once they drop their bags inside the door of their family home. In addition to basic connectivity issues, younger children might be home from school or daycare, making older siblings their de facto caretakers and teachers while parents are still at work. Students might have to pick up extra work to help the family, like Hurd, or take care of an ailing older relative—maybe virus-related, maybe not. And then there’s the students’ own health. Where they might have had easy access to counselors, doctors, and health care providers on campus, that’s often not the case at home.

“If you think about trying to support a private [counseling] practice in an area that’s already pretty sparse, it takes a really brave soul to set that up and get it off the ground. There’s not a lot of money in it, so it takes someone who’s really passionate about it,” Dr. Michael McClellan, a professor of psychology at Eastern Kentucky University who specializes in rural mental health, told me. “The things that I’ve been hearing from these therapists [around Kentucky] are mostly about getting people to treatment [during Covid-19]. They’ve relied on a transportation service that had been set up to take people to medical appointments, and in one of the communities where I’m working with a therapist, that’s shut down now even for medical appointments.”

Since being home, Hurd has found that her transition to online classes has gone more smoothly than expected. Still, the long-term uncertainty that’s come with the current public health crisis looms large. She managed to get a job delivering pizzas but is worried about her mom losing her own restaurant gig as more places close down. Her friends at home are largely in the same boat. “I know a few are working at Kroger and Walmart,” Hurd wrote. “In general, I’m just worried about how I’m going to make ends meet.”