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:

When COVID-19 forced school closures in March 2020, educators were caught off-guard. Many did not feel prepared for the transition to distance learning, since their training had equipped them for working face-to-face with students. Parents were also at a loss as to how to keep their children focused and as a result, many youth missed critical instruction.

During the spring 2020 closures, 55% of teachers rated the pivot to distance learning as difficult or very difficult. Only 15% called it easy or very easy. One in four considered themselves prepared, compared to 35% who did not feel at all prepared. Despite that, education professionals sought and shared best practices and many had great success. And district leaders all over the state sought ways to prepare for an uncertain future.

When asked more specific questions about the challenges, one primary issue was simply contacting students. Language barriers, scheduling conflicts, out-of-date contact information and lack of technology were all factors. Teachers got innovative to break through, using in-person homework drop-offs, personalized lesson plans, and making themselves available on evenings and weekends.

Keeping students engaged was a second challenge. One of the major factors was whether the student had computer and Wi-Fi access on a regular basis. Many lacked reliable internet or a computer/tablet/phone to complete their schoolwork. Those who did have access still faced technical glitches, some were sharing the device with family members, and others faced numerous additional barriers. Teachers who had employed virtual learning platforms prior to the closures shared that their students were more engaged and things went more smoothly.

Keeping students interested wasn’t a simple task. But teachers shared some ideas of what worked for them:

  • Giving students opportunities to see their friends online.
  • Focusing on their social-emotional health and well-being.
  • Holding virtual spirit days, playing games, and activities to connect personally.
  • Using a theme for each live class meeting.
  • Keeping an advisory time, such as homeroom.
  • Consistent routines that allowed students to be as self-directed as possible.
  • Weekly due dates, rather than daily.
  • Using a variety of learning platforms.
  • Having clear expectations for students and their work.

One teacher “created lesson plans and projects that [students] WANTED to complete. For example, rather than turning in the packet or writing assignments I asked them to create presentations. They really wanted to create and share things and when I found this out, I made plans that allowed for them to be creative and have fun. The assignments that were turned in were ones that they got to do things hands-on, video themselves to share, or make a presentation using technology. The tests and quizzes that were finished and turned in were the ones that I created through online platforms like Quizziz and Kahoot rather than paper based. I was still able to evaluate their knowledge, but they only did it when I made it fun.”

Another educator “made YouTube videos every day and sent them out daily. Had phone calls with each family each week. I made personal care packages two times during the closure of the school. In the care package it had everything they needed from crayons, scissors, glue even pencils for the children to use. The children looked forward to the videos and our phone calls.”

In western Arizona’s Quartzsite Elementary School District, School Board President Monica Timberlake shared that their district will be prioritizing distance learning for the time being. They’ll use recorded lessons to instruct, so that students are able to re-watch if needed. For those students who need assistance getting access to online instruction, the district was able to purchase enough chromebooks and hotspots to hand out to every student that needs one to ensure every student is connected.

Christie Carter, a middle school teacher in the same district, is helping educator peers prep for online instruction with guidance on engagement. She’s excited to get back into the classroom, and she plans to have high expectations for her students. During last year’s closure, Carter was grateful that her students already had Google Classroom logins, since it made for a smooth transition. But giving work that was only for extra credit meant that many stopped engaging. In the coming year, she’ll use more project-based learning to allow students to be more creative and let them self-direct. Those who are more analytical may want to create a formal presentation or research paper while others will pursue a drawing or video.

Marisela Felix, from Sunnyside Unified School District, noted that they’ll be using the same curriculum as last year to make it simpler for teachers pivoting to distance learning. All of their teachers have participated in training on their Google platforms, as well as on how best to teach virtually. Even their substitute teachers will be trained on best practices. And to ensure that students have consistent experiences, teachers will save class time for socializing and interactive learning, as well as tutoring. Despite their preparation, 1,200 of their families still can’t access high speed internet. But the district is continuing work to address that.

Tucson Unified School District utilized CARES Act funding to help educators get the professional development they needed to prepare for distance learning. Additionally, they’re continuing to invest in technology so that students can connect from home. Governing Board Member, Kristel Ann Foster, noted that she wished investments in technology would have been made earlier as part of the district’s desegregation budget, as we now truly see the relationship between the achievement gap and the digital divide. Though much of their urban district has the infrastructure to provide internet, some is low quality. And even though families were provided Wi-Fi hot spots, some school parking lot Wi-Fi was higher quality. The district is also working with families whose children need more assistance, providing therapy services and more.

At Tucson’s Sam Hughes Elementary School, Nanette Murray teaches English language development. She knew distance learning in the new year would need to be different than during the Spring 2020 closures. Murray is concerned about the lack of volunteers in the coming year, who provided valuable assistance in the classroom. Additionally, she’s grateful for the support she’s received from her principal and colleagues. Her school hosted an optional staff meeting allowed colleagues to share best practices and almost everyone always attended. The Tucson Unified School District offered training to prepare for the coming year and Murray has also spent time in national trainings on how to teach virtually. Her class in the new year will be very different from the last. Students are being given white boards so that they can all write their answers and share together. And video instructions will include questions midway through so that she knows youth are watching. She knows everyone will have to work hard, but that together they’ll get through it.

At Nogales High School, Jennifer Valenzuela works with advanced math and science students. Helping students individually and in real time is critical to their growth, so finding teaching platforms that allow for this will be a top priority in the coming year. She’s been trained on using Google Classroom and Edgenuity and sought out other online trainings that would help prepare her for this year. Since the district will be providing students with devices, Valenzuela will also be able to use Google Meets to get to know her students in small group sessions. It’s going to be a lot more work for her, but she’s excited to jump in.

To help prepare for the new school year, one ELD teacher in north central Phoenix has enrolled in classes on teaching virtually. The district has also provided training, so she feels much more prepared than she did last year. Her students speak limited amounts of English, so she’s already started prepping for how their classes will work, while also helping them navigate the virtual learning technology.

An English language development teacher at Palomino Primary modified her curriculum last year to aid students who were all below grade level in reading and writing proficiency. Her plan for this year will include videos that show students how to perform tasks. Learning this coming year will be able to be synchronous, since every student will have an internet-enabled device. She will be able to give small group instruction to help those who are behind. But because most of her parents speak only Spanish, the district will need to provide tech support in the appropriate language. To prepare, she learned about trauma-informed care and social emotional learning through summer district training, reading, and a course on community resilience. This will help her to build community, empathy and self-regulation with students.

For art teacher Connor Gifford, time away from students has been like torture. She’s spent the last five years at Western Valley Elementary School in west Phoenix. Distance learning is especially challenging since most of her students don’t have internet at home, let alone art supplies. During spring closures, she sent packets home, gave short lessons during regular class meetings and sometimes gave her own standalone lessons. Shifting to video-based teaching took a lot of time. She had to be able to give demos, speak to students and have her hands and the project viewable. Supplies were the other major obstacle. Gifford couldn’t hand out things like scissors and looms. And once students do return to schools for class, her art studio may be needed for regular classes’ social distancing. Moving forward, she plans to prerecord demonstrations as a way to facilitate student artwork.

Nathan Darus teaches music at Douglas High School. He and music teachers everywhere struggled, as there was little technology available for teaching music remotely. Their district had plans in place to host a summer band camp, but that wasn’t possible as COVID-19 cases climbed. He personally invested in an Acapella app, which allows his students to record asynchronously and mix their songs. He has plans for the coming year, including creating more solo and small ensemble music to engage youth during the pandemic.