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:

When Expect More Arizona decided in mid-May to conduct a voluntary survey of Arizona teachers, it was with the assumption that COVID-19 cases and concerns would continue to wane. Instead, as we all know, cases have spiked and anxiety about the elusive virus is as high as ever. As a result, we reached out to talk further with a number of teachers from across the state to dig in a little deeper and find out how they are feeling about returning to school for the start of the new year.

Overall, we were reminded that Arizona is extremely fortunate to be home to tens of thousands of smart, caring, dedicated professionals who can’t wait for the opportunity to be with their students again in person. However, they still have serious concerns about their own health and safety, as well as that of their students.

When teachers responded to the survey (fielded May 20-31, 2020), 79 percent indicated they planned to return to the classroom for the 2020-21 school year, although a significant proportion (18 percent) were still uncertain. Only 3 percent of teachers said they were not planning to return, for a variety of reasons. However, even in May – before Arizona was a coronavirus hotspot – teachers expressed that their biggest concern about returning to school was the health and safety of staff (67 percent) and students (62 percent).

The fact is that the majority of educators chose the teaching profession to improve the lives of their students, and they truly have a passion for their calling. They won’t let their own health and safety concerns stop them from continuing to teach. If their students are back at school, they want to be there with them. Especially since teachers are extremely worried about how different school will be for their students this year and the social and emotional impacts it will have on them, so they are committed to showing up.

Christina Carter, a 7th and 8th grade teacher in Ehrenberg, a small town in La Paz County, wants to help her students feel safe and secure and help them ease back into a regular school routine. After two decades of teaching and growing up in the rural community, she has also taught a lot of her students’ parents who trust her and know how much she cares about each and every one of them.

For some, a lot has changed since May. Several teachers we spoke with talked about seeing the direct impacts of the virus, citing people in their immediate circles who are battling COVID-19, as well as one educator who is currently recovering after four weeks of dealing with the virus. And while they are all still planning to return to the classroom whenever it’s safe to do so, they would all like to ensure that there are critical health and safety protocols in place to mitigate transmission as much as possible.

“I have mixed emotions about returning to the classroom. While I miss my students and wish we could return to education as normal, the teaching world is a much different place now. There are calculated risks to my family, my student’s families and my colleagues’ families. This is the time to find creative solutions, not business as usual,” shares Patti Pastor, a culinary teacher at Flagstaff High School.

Things around the state, country and nation have changed dramatically since the beginning of last school year and teachers recognize that it can’t and won’t be status quo. Many are also concerned about what happens when a teacher gets sick or has a possible exposure to the virus and would need to quarantine for at least two weeks. With a growing teacher shortage already in Arizona, many educators are doubtful there are enough substitutes available to take over their class for an extended time period. They also worry about how long-term teacher absences would impact their students learning and mental well-being.

Many educators are also growing anxious about getting started with planning for the upcoming school year. Debbie Pearson, who has been teaching 7th grade science in Safford for more than 30 years, shares that she would already have her lesson plans for the first nine weeks of school ready to go by early July. But now she is not sure if her instruction will be online for a portion of the year and whether she should continue figuring out how best to teach the new science standards to her students and developing creative ways to pivot her instruction to video content and project-based learning if they can’t physically be in the science lab.

Connor Gifford, a visual arts teacher in a remote southwest Phoenix district, misses all of her students and can’t wait to interact with them again on a daily basis. However, she personally selected the hybrid model when completing a recent staff survey. She recognizes starting online and moving to in-person classes later might be safest thing for her and her students, but knows how tactile her arts program is and that students really need to be on campus with her to get the full experience. She also understands that the school may need to use her art studio as a classroom in order to implement social distancing protocols, although she is not sure there are enough teachers to actually make that happen. The thought that she may not ever get her studio back weighs on her heavily.

Stacey Weddle, a kindergarten teacher at Edison Elementary School in Mesa, is another educator who is eager to return to the classroom. As a Title I school, Edison Elementary students live in a predominantly low-income area, so Stacey knows how much they need to be at school and in a regular routine again. Not only that, but making connections, using hands-on activities, and exploring with sensory play allows teachers to effectively instruct kindergarten students in a way that is appropriate for their developmental level versus having to rely on distance and/or online learning options.

Nathan Darus, a music teacher at Douglas High School in Cochise County, is hopeful to be back in the classroom as soon as it’s possible since his students just aren’t able to be exposed to music in the same way. “The emotional toll of kids staying at home for the past five months is huge,” he adds.

It is apparent that teachers across the state at all grade levels are incredibly passionate about their profession and want to see all their students succeed. They became teachers to make a difference in their students’ lives. Just because the majority of teachers plan to return to school, it doesn’t mean they aren’t concerned about COVID-19, just that other factors weighed even more heavily on their decision.