In May, Expect More Arizona fielded a survey to give teachers a chance to weigh in on COVID-19’s impact on education. This blog series will explore results in more detail, with specific input from classroom teachers across the state. As the pandemic trends shift and schools plan for re-openings, outlooks will continue to evolve. Learn more about the survey at ExpectMoreArizona.org/TeacherVoices.

Check out our other blogs in this series:

Kids are incredibly resilient. But COVID-19 is a global pandemic that is changing so many things about how we live our lives. Families have been asked to stay at home and school buildings across the state and nation were closed this spring to help mitigate the spread of the virus. Many children and young adults are coping with separation anxiety from their peers, extended family, teachers and coaches; others are dealing with the effects of close family members who are battling the disease; and some have had a parent or caregiver lose their job and not be able to provide for their family. We may not know exactly when we will be able to return to some sense of normalcy, but one thing is for certain –  students will undoubtedly feel the impacts in more ways than one.

TEACHERS WORRY ABOUT STUDENTS EMOTIONAL WELL-BEING

While health and safety are their biggest concerns for the 2020-21 school year, many teachers are also incredibly worried about the social and emotional needs of their students and how best to address these issues in the coming months.

Teachers provide incredible emotional support to their students, says Niki Tilicki, a fourth grade teacher at Innovation Academy in Tucson. “We build relationships with kids that last a lifetime. That is more important than anything we teach. The whole world is dealing with the effects of this pandemic, so I’m not as worried about academics as I am about their emotional wellbeing. Most of my students will pick up quickly as long as they feel emotionally supported.”

“It’s really important to have kids back in school as soon as it is safe to do so. For so many, school is their safety net and now they are trapped at home,” adds Kim Hoke, a middle school math teacher in Coolidge.

Special student populations, such as those living on Native American reservations or in extreme poverty, can be especially impacted. “Coming from a rural part of the state, the students we serve from the reservation have been particularly hard hit by COVID-19 and will most likely come back with traumatic experiences and need counseling. Some of these same students did not have access to technology and as a result missed a substantial amount of instruction during the last eight weeks of school which will give them anxiety,” shares Patti Pastor, a culinary teacher at Flagstaff High School.

Educators have a lot of great suggestions about how to ease the transition back to school. Christina Cooper, a second grade teacher in Coolidge, recommends having students start with their homeroom teacher from the previous year since they have already built up trust and rapport, which would make it easier to teach them about the new health and safety protocols and ease them back into the school setting. With everything that has changed on school campuses and in student’s lives, this could be a good way to help students feel safe and secure. “We need to start in the shallow end of the pool and ease into the water. We don’t want to put students on the high dive right away,” she says.

Edison Elementary School in Mesa will have two counselors on staff this upcoming school year, which kindergarten teacher Stacey Weddle believes will be instrumental in addressing the social emotional needs of all students when they return to school campus. She also plans on implementing a technique called Zones of Regulation. When students walk into the classroom they select the color that represents how they are feeling that day, which can help flag for her when a child might need to talk to a counselor or additional support from her.

Dena Pepper, a fourth grade teacher at Wilson Elementary School in Phoenix, also recommends bringing in more social workers. She thinks it would be great if trauma-informed social workers could speak with each class in the first few weeks of school, as well as heavily incorporating Social Emotional Learning (SEL) into the first semester.

ACADEMICS ALSO TOP OF MIND

However, the mental health and emotional wellbeing of students is not the only thing that teachers are apprehensive about. They are already trying to determine how best to catch students up academically when school starts back, especially for those kids who weren’t as engaged after in-person classes were halted.

Kim Hoke in Coolidge, finds it reassuring to remember that all other schools across the state, the nation and the world, are all in similar situations. She advocates for strong parent communications and involvement as a crucial piece to having a successful year, especially if instruction will need to take place online again for part of the school year. Schools will need to have a plan in place to service all students, regardless of their situation. For example, every student at her school has a device from the district to use, but not all have internet connectivity at home and many are having to share one device with multiple children in the household.

There’s also quite a disparity in educational tools available to teachers, according to Ellen O’Loughlin, who taught fifth grade at Heritage Academy in Glendale. Many educators don’t have the devices or access to the technology platforms needed for high-quality online learning options. Plus, there is a huge learning curve with the technology and many teachers were not given ample time or training to develop the skills for more robust distance learning. She also hopes schools will consider adding instructional time and extra days to the school year for the next few years.

Christina Cooper in Coolidge hasn’t stopped thinking about how to catch up her students who were behind during the regular school year, even before the closures. However, having been an educator for two decades, she knows that good teachers will teach the curriculum in the way it needs to be taught and will fill in the gaps as they go along. If students spend quality time with high quality teachers and quality materials, then they will be able to quickly make up the learning they lost out on during the pandemic.

Additionally, many educators recommend having tutoring available for English language learners and other students who are struggling academically.

Some teachers are asking for curriculum and standards to be reassessed. “In this pandemic, we were able to identify modules in math that weren’t going to be seen again until two years later. We need to lighten the academic load for the school year so we can focus on essential standards that absolutely must be taught,” says Krista Gibson, a gifted specialist and K-8 STEM Specialist for Deer Valley Unified School District.

Teachers also flagged some concerns with the three learning models most districts are offering for the upcoming school year. For example, Cristi Sims, an honors biology and AP biology teacher at Arizona College Prep in Chandler, wonders how the flex learning model will work. Lesson plans for in-person classes don’t typically follow the same timeline as lesson plans for online learning. A great deal of planning needs to be done in advance to make sure that if students transition from online learning back to the classroom, they neither miss or have to repeat any of the curriculum. She’s also worried about how her students, many of which are dual enrolled, will receive college credit for their work, especially if they end up having to teach a large portion of the school year online. Many requirements of the AP program specify 40 percent of the instructional time is allocated to hands-on activities and actual labs.

One thing is for certain, teachers are absolutely dedicated to their students and their profession. They are asking families to come back to school with an open mind and an open heart and to be super flexible.

“We need to give students time to ease back into school and everything that encompasses. If we put the time in now to get students up to speed, then it will pay off in the long run,” adds Christina Cooper from Coolidge.