The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare some of the most pressing issues that Arizona schools face every day. While our state’s amazing educators have made every effort to support students and avoid a feared COVID-slide, some challenges have been more daunting than others, making even small wins especially sweet.
Food insecurity: While some schools were able to begin online learning immediately upon physically closing, most scrambled to first ensure students did not go hungry. Schools have faced unprecedented demand for free meals and stepped up to find innovative ways to procure and safely deliver food to students and their families. Nonprofit organizations have helped bridge gaps. Colleges and universities also made sure campus food pantries were stocked and available to serve students. Exposure to stresses outside of school, such as unreliable access to food, healthcare and stable housing have a huge impact on success in the classroom. As our state moves forward, we must do more to address poverty and its impact on achievement gaps.
Access to technology: As schools pivoted to distance learning, a significant digital divide had to be addressed. Rural and urban families alike lacked access to high-speed internet, the hardware to access it, or the technical expertise to access the new platforms. To help alleviate the gap, some districts made Wi-Fi-equipped buses available in communities, businesses coordinated laptop drives on behalf of students, and internet service providers stepped up to offer free broadband for families with school-age children. Federal relief funding has also helped cities provide such access. Education and business need permanent solutions to address access to technology, as these issues existed before the pandemic and will persist when it ends.
Supporting students: Educators and students across the state pivoted to distance learning almost overnight, and have been did their best. Chances are good that when school resumes in the fall, things will look different, and parents, kids and educators will have to adapt again. Even with recent grants, there remain close to 900 students to every one counselor, a caseload that will be unimaginable as students return to school in the coming year with entirely new needs. In addition, lost learning time will require additional resources for students from support staff and interventionists to propel them forward. And let’s not forget about the strain this experience has had on our teachers. We need to make sure they are properly supported and cared for, as well.
The strength of Arizona’s economy is driven by the strength of our schools. But schools don’t just serve as the talent pipeline for Arizona businesses. Our education system allows parents and caregivers to work — beginning with access to quality early childcare and including afterschool care, summer programming and more. Schools — from early education through higher education — are an essential part of Arizona’s recovery efforts and must be treated as such. Arizona’s future depends on it.
Christine Thompson is president & CEO of Expect More Arizona, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization bringing communities together to create positive change in education at all levels.