A spike in student disciplinary problems. Fractured relationships between schools and parents. A rise in chronic absenteeism. Enrollment decreases. A shortage of bus drivers, front office workers, custodians and other support staff, in addition to qualified teachers.
These are some of the lingering challenges school districts confront as students return to in-person learning after more than two years of intermittent remote learning, quarantines and other learning disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Superintendents from a variety of school districts around the state gathered to share some of the challenges they are grappling with, along with some of the possible solutions they are rolling out at the start of the new academic year, which for most students begins this month.
The gathering Tuesday on the campus of the Helios Education Foundation, a research group, brought together more than 100 education leaders, among them Kathy Hoffman, Arizona’s top school official.
Data shows that the pandemic slowed learning for all students in Arizona. But Black, Latino and Native American students as a whole experienced even bigger declines. They were already behind white students academically before the pandemic, which widened the academic achievement gap.
“We know that every student was impacted by the pandemic just like the pandemic impacted every community,” Hoffman said. “But some weathered the storm better than others because of the resources available to them. It’s no secret the pandemic exacerbated the longstanding inequities that have long hampered or closed opportunities for too many students.”
As a result, resources should be used to help students who fell behind the most catch up, she said.
“When a parent has to work two and three jobs to make ends meet or when children go hungry and do not have secure housing, that impacts their ability to learn at school,” Hoffman said. “More robust support for low-income families and communities will pay dividends regarding student academic outcomes.”
Helping students recover is not just the responsibility of schools but will take a communitywide effort, Hoffman said.
Data shows drop in English, math proficiency
Among white students, English proficiency fell from 56% in 2019 before the pandemic to 52% in 2021 after the pandemic, according to data compiled by Helios from the State Department of Education. For Latino students, English proficiency fell from 32% to 27%; for Black students, from 30% to 25%; and for Native American students, from 20% to 16%.
Math proficiency declined even more, from 56% to 46% among white students; from 32% to 19% among Latino students; and from 27% to 15% for Black students. Math proficiency among Native Americans was the lowest, falling from 21% to 11%, the data shows.
The declines are particularly concerning to educators because Latino, Black and Native American students combined represent the majority of the state’s 1.1 million students. Latino students are also the largest and fastest growing of all race and ethnic groups in Arizona. They make up nearly half of K-12 students and 65% of K-8 students.
“The lingering effects of COVID on student learning will have serious consequences not just to the students themselves” but also the economic future of the entire state, said Paul Luna, president and CEO of Helios.
Educators seek new approaches to help kids
Jamie Sheldahl is superintendent of the Yuma Elementary School District, which serves students in rural southwestern Arizona. More than 71% of the district’s students live in poverty and 81% are students of color, including 76% Latino, Sheldahl said.
The district experienced a 5% drop in attendance last year.
The reason attendance dropped is because many parents continued to be afraid to send their children to school for fear they might get infected with COVID-19 and then spread it to other family members, including parents working low-wage jobs.
“We are talking about kids whose parents if they don’t go to work, they don’t get paid,” Sheldahl said.
He was encouraged, however, because 92% of the school district’s students showed up on the first day of school Monday, up from 85% a year ago.
The district also experienced a spike in student disciplinary problems on the heels of the pandemic, including a 15% increase in student suspensions and a 33% increasing in fighting and other aggressive behavior, Sheldahl said.
Sheldahl attributed the rise in student disciplinary problems, which further hurt learning, to students reacclimating to learning in-person after months of isolating at home learning virtually.
To address disciplinary problems this year, the district used federal COVID-19 relief funds it received through the state to create several new positions, including data specialists and intervention specialists, to help schools re-engage with students, he said.
Quintin Boyce is superintendent of the Roosevelt School District, which serves predominantly low-income students of color students from south Phoenix.
The district is trying to help students make up the ground they lost during the pandemic by focusing on their individual needs, he said.
“We meet individual students where they are at and then grow them,” Boyce said. “That was hard two and a half years ago. It’s super hard, super duper hard, today.”
The district launched “signature academies” at five schools last year and plans to launch three more this year, Boyce said. The academies are designed to improve student engagement by allowing students to work on in-depth projects that make learning more relevant, he said.
The district has also changed the way it addresses discipline problems.
“We’ve moved away from discipline as a result of punitive measures but instead (treat) discipline as a learning opportunity,” Boyce said.
“It’s a new mindset. We are better prepared as a community to better respond to whatever, happens we have the mitigation muscle memory,” Boyce said. “So if things change, we know how to respond to it.”
Gabriel Trujillo is superintendent of the Tucson Unified School District, the third-largest school district in the state.
The district has been affected by labor shortages, which has made it hard to hire and retain bus drivers, counselors, front office workers, and other support staff in addition to qualified teachers.
The labor shortages have hurt classroom learning, he said.
“When you have that kind of widespread labor shortage, it chips away at that education ecosystem that surrounds the teacher and allows that teacher to flourish in the classroom,” Trujillo said.
Teachers don’t just want to be compensated professionally, Trujillo said. “They want to make sure they are in a safe learning space that equips them with the conditions to be successful.”
“When the AC is out and there is no bus driver and kids are coming in late and they have to sweep out their own classroom, that gets old very very quickly,” Trujillo said.
To compete with the private sector because of labor shortages, the district has raised pay to retain support staff and teaches using federal funds distributed to states to help schools improve learning affected by the pandemic, Trujillo said.
Schools also have sought to place students who fell behind the most academically in classrooms with the most qualified teachers so that they can make up the ground they lost, Trujillo said.
The district this year is also trying to rebuild relationships with parents that were fractured due to shifting quarantine protocols, remote learning policies and other disruptions caused by the pandemic, Trujillo said.
A “school champion” has been designated at each school to reach out to parents, especially in “high needs areas in each school community, whether it’s putting clothing drives, putting together hygiene materials for students at risk or bringing more books into the building,” Trujillo said.
“These are all areas that all segments of the community can get behind and an olive branch that we are going to be able to extend systemically to bring that parent or community member that didn’t always agree with us back into the fold.” he said.