Years before the coronavirus hit, two rural school districts started developing plans to put learning online. They were ready for a snowstorm and instead found themselves prepared for a pandemic.

For the Bancroft-Rosalie Community Schools in northeast Nebraska, the move online took four years, gradually incorporating online software into daily lesson plans to use during inclement weather or in place of hiring substitutes when a teacher was absent. The district used digital learning to abolish snow days — a trend that has spread to New York City and could work its way across the country.

Taking classes online full-time happened in a way no one could have anticipated. On March 11, following a possible widespread COVID-19 exposure at a girls’ state basketball game, staff had about an hour to get roughly 285 students out the door with tablets in hand.

Last winter, after five years of work, officials in the Bermudian Springs School District in south-central Pennsylvania also launched a program for students to learn online a few days a year, during snow days and teacher workdays. On March 13, when districts across the state closed because of the virus, school officials found themselves relying on the program to educate 1,960 students full-time.

Great swaths of rural America had little way to transition students to online learning when schools closed from the coronavirus. About half of Americans — 163 million people — lack access to high-speed internet, a 2018 Microsoft study found. But these districts had already put learning online and had handed out devices for hundreds of students.

As school restarted this fall, chaos reigned in some districts, with delayed start dates, confusing digital programs and students switching back and forth between in-person and online courses. For many rural schools, online learning was again not an option.

Not so at Bancroft-Rosalie and Bermudian Springs. Officials from both districts said school started more smoothly because staff and students knew what to expect and issues with connectivity and devices already had been addressed. Bermudian Springs, which reopened with a hybrid schedule using both in-person and online classes, changed its start date twice to help get ready for the school year and to give teachers a week for training, collaborating and loading lessons into the online systems. Bancroft-Rosalie let students choose an in-person or online education.

Parent Amy Leatherman can see the growth Bermudian Springs has gone through since last spring. She’s a teacher in another district that didn’t have an online learning plan before the pandemic.

This spring, she said, “I was thankful for my own family and my own kids that I knew kind of what the setup was going to be.”