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A Case Study in Resilience: How A Rural School Responded to COVID-19

It’s often been said that times of crisis bring out the best (or worst) in someone. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly put this adage to the test, stretching us to our very limits, testing our capabilities, flexibility, creativity and patience. For public schools, COVID-19 has tested the mettle of administrators, the fortitude of faculty and staff, and the creativity of communities in facing a challenge unlike any they have encountered before.

Genesee Valley Central School, along with other schools across the state and nation, revamped operations and instruction in the wake of the coronavirus. In a quickly evolving situation, this rural western New York State school of approximately 600 students (PreK-12) crafted a plan to remotely engage students, families, faculty and staff in order to keep the educational process going and to ensure that the essential needs of families were met.

Revamping Instruction in a Moment’s Notice

For educators who’ve spent their entire careers teaching face-to-face, the challenge of adjusting methodologies and practices to distance learning was daunting. Genesee Valley’s teachers, along with peers across the country, didn’t have weeks or months to get up to speed—they had mere days. Dr. Brian Schmitt, Superintendent of Genesee Valley, encouraged teachers to focus on the relationships and primary needs of families. “We immediately developed a meal, technology and school supply delivery plan and tested the myriad of ways we communicate with families,” said Schmitt. “Our main focus is always to support the students, families, staff and community.”

Kellie Schmidt, now in her eighteenth year teaching at Genesee Valley, was faced with retooling her second-grade class for virtual instruction—and fast. The solution: Facebook. “Facebook allows me to post lesson plans and worksheets, links to educational sites and videos,” said Schmidt. “It’s the closest thing we have now to a classroom.” Schmidt’s second grade private Facebook group has 52 members and sees an average of 25 posts per day. The group includes videos of Mrs. Schmidt reading students a bedtime story, pictures of proud students holding up their completed work for all to see, and parents sharing resources and words of encouragement with each other.

Social Studies teacher Donna Slawson had little trouble adapting to an online learning environment. “My students have been using our online learning platform (Microsoft Teams) all year, so we made the transition to remote learning quite well,” commented Slawson. She’s up early each morning posting assignments by 7:00 a.m. and spends her school days chatting online with students, answering questions and clarifying expectations. “My students enjoy setting their own schedule, working at their own pace, and having the ability to reach me at their convenience,” said Slawson. “These students are learning such great lessons about time management and have such an intrinsic motivation to learn.”

Technology Limitations and Solutions

Reliable access to technology and the Internet is paramount in online learning. In a region where upwards of twenty percent (20%) of district residents do not have access to high speed Internet, Genesee Valley ensured that all had equal access to learning resources by meeting students’ most basic technological needs. The school loaned out 180 iPads to students who needed access to a device for instruction. In addition, Genesee Valley worked with local libraries, village offices, and other community organizations to provide access to free Wi-Fi for families without internet service.

Some teachers navigated the path from in-person to virtual instruction quite adeptly, while others faced a steep learning curve. Enter Lindsay Simpson, Genesee Valley’s Technology Integration Specialist. Simpson supports faculty and students in all grade levels by coordinating online platforms, hosting training sessions, troubleshooting problems, brainstorming solutions, and creating resources to coach students and teachers in online etiquette and expectations.

“There was a huge learning curve for many teachers to learn the online platforms,” said Simpson. She and designated technology liaisons at Genesee Valley held an all-day training session for teachers on the Friday before the shutdown, and by the following Monday, many had already begun setting up and implementing their virtual learning environments. “Not only did our staff immediately start working hard to learn—they haven't stopped yet! Their creativity is amazing and the way they are working to try and create meaningful and fun activities for the home makes me proud to be at Genesee Valley through this crazy world-wide event. To say I have been impressed with their response would be a significant understatement. I am in awe of them!”

Combating Food Scarcity During a Time of Crisis

In many communities, public schools function not only as a provider of education, but also a critical resource for basic needs, including medical, dental, mental health, food and nutrition. In a high needs district such as Genesee Valley, food scarcity is a real and daily concern, with fifty-three percent of students qualifying for the free or reduced lunch program through the NYS Department of Education. (Under the Community Eligibility Provision, 69% of Genesee Valley students qualify for free meals.)

The cafeteria staff, led by food service manager Kelli Zenoski, sprang into action immediately, devising a plan for providing daily meals for every student qualifying for free and reduced lunch. “With help from teacher's aides and bus drivers, we are sending out approximately 800 meals a day to Genesee Valley families.”

“The response from our students and parents has been beyond amazing,” said Zenoski. “The smiles and even tears when meals are dropped off makes our efforts so worthwhile. We are humbled by the response so far. It is so rewarding to know that we have helped out our school and community.”

Maintaining Community While in Isolation

The mandated school closure, coupled with constant reminders about social distancing coming from all sides, is challenging for students and families. Students who are used to the social interaction inherent in a typical school day are coming to grips with a surprisingly reality: they miss school. “Many of our older students actually miss school,” commented Simpson. “They miss their classmates, they miss their clubs, they miss athletics and… (gasp!) they even miss their teachers!”

To continue the tight knit sense of community found at a small school like Genesee Valley, faculty have created structures and routines to keep students connected. Slawson hosts two virtual lunchtime gatherings each day for middle and high school students. “We use the time to talk about what we watched on Netflix over the weekend, silly videos, even what everyone is eating – anything to help us feel connected to each other now that we aren’t in school.”

Kellie Schmidt and her co-teacher Melissa Shafer reach out to their students personally to keep the lines of communication open. “Mrs. Shafer and I call each of our students,” said Schmidt. “From there, the students take over—they start calling us! Their parents text us, call, and post to our Facebook page continuously. They never hesitate to contact us for advice and to provide suggestions and ideas of their own that they would like to share.”

Facing Uncertainty with Resolve

While students and teachers have adapted their instruction and have settled in to a new routine for the school day, questions still linger. “On top of trying to understand what is happening in the world,” said Simpson, “students have been asking really practical questions like ‘will we have a senior prom?’ ‘Will we be able to cross the stage for graduation?’ ‘If there are no Regents Exams, will that affect my ability to graduate?’ ‘Will I have to re-take classes or double-up on classes or tests to catch up?’”

At Genesee Valley, the character word for the month of March is “resilience” and it’s exactly that trait that permeates the very fabric of the district. “I’m so proud of our faculty, staff and community” said Superintendent Schmitt. “Everyone continues to demonstrate patience, flexibility and a desire to do what is best for students. It gives me great hope for our future!” “What has amazed me most about this experience,” said Slawson, “is how everyone in the Genesee Valley community came together. I see students supporting each other–responding to questions, motivating each other. I see other teachers lifting each other up and learning from each other, and our support staff feeding and delivering items to students each and every day. The presence of our community members online, participating in conversations, and sharing ideas has been inspiring. If nothing else, this crisis has shown what can be done when a whole community works towards one goal–I hope that it continues long after things have returned to normal.”

“Yep, it’s Worth the Drive”

Each week for a semester, college students piled into a van for the 30-minute drive to Groton Elementary School. What the undergrads and the children enrolled in an after-school program learn from each other: priceless.

A former K-12 teacher and now teaching professor at Cornell University, Bryan Duff focuses on youth development, especially in after-school and summer programs. Because such programs can change youth trajectories, and because they are harder to access in rural areas, Duff reaches out to rural districts “near” the University each time he teaches a course. That’s because his courses on educational psychology include off-campus field- work: a chance for undergrads to use, refine, and add to what they learn on campus.

When Duff reached out in Spring 2018, Groton Elementary principal Kent Maslin reached right back. Yes, the school’s families would appreciate more after-school options. Yes, the children would enjoy regular interaction with adults who aren’t quite old enough to be their parents or teachers. And, for sure, the children’s awareness of college and of the world outside their school would grow from such contact. Duff says that such sentiments, alongside Maslin’s reciprocal concern for the learning of the college students, boded well for the partnership.

Program Development
Of course, programs can’t live on sentiment alone. Resources and experience-tested models are needed, and Duff was fortunate in several respects. First, he had residual funds from a grant offered by Cornell’s Office of Engagement Initiatives, which aims to make community engagement a pillar of the University’s curriculum. Second, Groton Elementary already offered late buses for students, allowing Duff’s funding to cover snacks and rental vans for the three
weekly round trips between Cornell and the school. Finally, thanks to the aforementioned grant, Duff had had a chance in Spring 2018 to pilot-test and improve a specific after-school model.

Each college student was paired with an elementary buddy, based partly on information that guardians provided about the child’s interests, strengths, and challenges. For one hour each week, these pairs worked together to write and photo-illustrate a short story. Duff knew (all too well) that his students had phones that take crystal-clear color photos, so there was no additional expense there! He also knew that children’s imaginations likely would take stories in directions that defy photo-realism, so he was glad that he already had a green-screen!

The program culminated in a book-publishing party. Before the event, the stories were combined into three soft-bound anthologies — one for each of the three afternoons that the college students were on campus. Family and community members were invited to the party. A musical slide show, featuring each of the co-author pairs, was followed by 30-second tributes read aloud by each Cornell student to their buddy. The tributes went through multiple drafts to ensure that each one specifically and vividly highlighted the child’s strengths and interests. Duff said that he wanted every child, and every child’s family, to leave the event thinking, “Now that is someone who knows my child well.”

The program served 27 children, ranging from kindergarten to fourth grade.

Enjoy a highlights booklet (one-page excerpts from some of the stories). There’s plenty more where this came from!

​ Sample feedback from parents and guardians:

We can't thank you enough for the great experience this semester. The book is unbelievable and we will cherish the college students’ speeches forever! ​

[Child’s name] loved the program and working with [Cornell student’s name]. Each week he couldn’t wait to tell me what they did after school.

Sample feedback from Cornell students:

I loved hearing everyone's tributes and seeing the looks on the kids’ faces when they got to walk up to the front of the room. I know my buddy... loved it, and she was so excited to sign my book and take pictures together all dressed up.... [Child’s] mom even texted me after the event and thanked me for being such a presence in [child’s] life, and how

Wednesdays were her favorite day by far - it made me tear up a little 🙂 Thank you for helping me take time out of my busy Cornell schedule to do something so meaningful. Last night made me forget all about my finals and papers and everything else for a little while.

For more information:
Bryan Duff
(607) 255-8663

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From the website:

Human-Centered Design

The spring 2020 Cornell English and Media Studies course, “Design Thinking, Media, and Community,” explored methods of human-centered design and transmedia knowledge in collaboration with high school English and Art classes in Ithaca and Dryden, New York. Project-based learning combines student-driven research, collaboration, and communication to address these issues. Our goal has been to use design thinking to support project-based learning through transmedia civic storytelling projects: real stories about real issues for real audiences. ​

Read more about the project and access resources HERE.