Today marks the first day of my Spring Break. Five days of rest and recharge before the fourth quarter begins. When break ends, it will also mean the return of in-person learning. While I am excited to see many of my students in person for the first time this school year, and to be able to address their educational needs without a screen between us, it doesn’t mean I am without reservations.
I have several concerns about this shift. Yes, I am concerned that students and their families have not yet had the opportunity to be vaccinated. This issue can hopefully be addressed with an accelerated vaccination timeline, and the addition of a third vaccine (go science!) to those already being used. Yes, I am concerned that mitigation measures may negatively impact best practices such as collaborative learning and small group instruction.
Until we have extensive evidence that the pandemic is behind us, these concerns will be there. In the meantime there are problems, ones educators have realized for a while now, that are only going to multiply as we bring students back to campuses across the state.
- Students have experienced trauma since March 2020. Families may have lost income, housing, health insurance, and loved ones. The stress on their households has been immense as the adults in their lives juggled work and remote learning amid uncertainty. Bringing students back to campus to relieve some pressure on families may seem easy, but Arizona students are returning to campuses in a state with a student-to-counselor ratio of over 900:1. Classroom teachers may have received an hour of PowerPoint-based training on social and emotional learning, but we are not counselors, interventionists, or social workers. Our students are going to need supports and these have not been in place for years. If your child attends an elementary school with a full-time counselor on staff, know that this is the exception and not the rule. Moving forward, Arizonans should insist that the state fund counselors to reach the American School Counselor Association recommended student-to-counselor ratio of 250:1.
- Remote learning has shown that there is a massive digital divide within our schools. Students whose internet connection was fast and reliable were able to participate more in learning opportunities than those whose connection continuously dropped or slowed. This digital divide existed before March 2020, separating the students who could complete that research project at home from those who gave up their lunch to work in the library. Technological tools are likely here to stay which means we must act to address access. The idea of Broadband for All has been stalled for years in national legislation, even though the FCC states that “high-speed Internet access, or broadband, is critical to economic opportunity, job creation, education, and civic engagement.” Individual states have invested in broadband programs that ensure high-speed internet access to underserved communities and U.S. News and World Report ranks Arizona 34th for internet access. For the sake of our future growth, Arizonans should look for continued investment in infrastructure that expands access to all Arizona students and their households.
- The key element that prepared educators and schools for remote learning that worked was an investment in professional development. Professional development, as educators know, is not unique to 2020. Schools and districts across the country hold training for their educators as a scheduled part of the academic year. Many educators go beyond this, investing their personal time and funds in continuing education, whether these are informal workshops or graduate classes, in pursuit of knowledge that can make us more effective with students. Investment in a single educator can multiply to an investment in over a hundred students each year, yet professional development funding has been a target of cuts in the past years. Title II-A of the Every Student Succeeds Act allows for professional development grants to local education agencies, an investment that then reaps dividends in our students. In the early years of my teaching career, federal Eisenhower grants promoted math and science education, training numerous Arizona teachers in innovative, engaging pedagogical skills. This funding should be protected as we seek to continually improve education to best serve our society and our communities.
The issues that the struggles of this past year have highlighted aren’t going away without our advocacy. Parents and educators alike can come together and affect change in the best interest of the kids we care about. We can build a better educational experience for the children of Arizona and now is the time.
What concerns did the past year highlight for you?