In May, Expect More Arizona fielded a survey to give classroom 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 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:

Teachers are accustomed to addressing “summer slide” at the beginning of a school year as students come back to the classroom having forgotten as much as two months’ worth of learning. But the 2020 return to school will be different. As schools transitioned to distance learning in March, students had widely varied experiences, depending on what resources were available in their home and through their school.

Historically, some students in Arizona, especially children who are minorities and/or living in poverty, lack the opportunities needed to succeed at the same levels of students who are white and/or affluent. Even cursory looks at test scores and attainment levels reveal how this shows up in schools. For instance, the most recent AzMERIT test data shows that 61 percent of white third-graders are reading at grade level. That figure drops to 34 percent for those who are economically disadvantaged, 36 percent for Hispanics, 35 percent for Blacks and 22 percent Native Americans.

It remains to be seen how much the closures will impact Arizona’s long-standing achievement gap. But it certainly exacerbated the challenges already faced by these groups.

When asked how students’ learning should be assessed at the start of the coming school year, a majority of teachers responding favored a diagnostic assessment or site/teacher developed assessment. Many shared the importance of core English language arts and math instruction, as well as one-on-one or small group instruction to get students back up to speed.

However, many teachers noted the desire to prioritize students’ health, mental wellbeing and safety as they return to the classroom. Said one, “Let’s assess them to see what they need, yes, but making sure the standards are all met should not be our biggest concern right now. Students won’t learn if their needs are met. They need to be healthy, and fed, and feel safe.”

Another shared broader concerns with beginning-of-year testing during an ongoing pandemic and recession: “These [tests] are fine, but truthfully? Shame on us for even worrying about this. WHY would we focus on giving tests at the beginning of the year? Do you know how much trauma these kids are going to have coming back?… Kids don’t need more time to catch up academically, we just need to start teaching… What students learned during this COVID time is strength, resilience, heartache, responsibility, frustration etc. and now we just have to keep going like every elementary teacher does. Start from where they are at the day they walk through our door.”

In Amphitheatre School District, Niki Tilicki saw first-hand how inequities impacted her third and fourth-grade students. Before school buildings closed, some youth spent an hour on a bus just to get there. And many of those same students couldn’t connect to school remotely after the transition to distance learning. Teachers and administrators tracked down as many students as possible to provide them a device to be able to connect. That meant taking computers from classrooms and even using personal devices to ensure that students had a lifeline. Some of her students had parents facing unemployment and many parents needed guidance to use what technology they did have available. One of her colleagues had some students accompany their families to Mexico and weren’t able to finish up the year remotely.

Conversely, Krista Gibson, who works with gifted students in Deer Valley Unified School district, isn’t as worried about achievement gaps. The parents of gifted students tend to be more rigorous with academics because their gifted students find joy in continuing their learning through the summer with coding classes or math enrichment programs. In addition, gifted kids tend to retain and learn quickly so closing that gap is not as challenging. However, the challenge is in the social-emotional aspect of home learning, especially if school campuses need to close again for part of the year.

For Valley-based elementary teacher, Dena Pepper, internet connectivity was a huge issue. It creates an even greater divide for families who are likely already struggling with poverty and unemployment. Beyond that, students received their school work in English, which means Spanish-speaking parents were not able to assist them.

Connectivity was also a challenge for Nathan Darus, a music teacher at Douglas High School. Many rural communities like his still lack the infrastructure to connect to the internet, furthering the emotional toll on students that are quarantined at home. He also noted the challenges faced by many educators in border communities, as many families left to quarantine in Mexico, leaving teachers unable to reach them.

In Coolidge, Christina Cooper taught second grade. She says achievement gaps today are greater after five months of COVID slide. She would approach the coming school year by re-teaching last semester’s standards, putting in the time early to get them up to speed because she knows the second graders she taught last year are not yet ready for third grade. All of her students had an iPad and Apple ID for schoolwork, but too many don’t have Wi-Fi at home, hampering their ability to learn when schools closed.

Several teachers also noted that some kids will be left even further behind as schools close campuses to volunteers. Especially at the elementary school level, volunteers are playing a big role in helping students hone their reading and math skills by practicing one-on-one and in small groups.

Moving forward Arizona will need to invest in programs and services that will shrink the achievement gap and give all students equitable access to a high-quality education.