Local Opinion: What the pandemic has taught us about K-12 schooling in Arizona
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Local Opinion: What the pandemic has taught us about K-12 schooling in Arizona

The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.

This spring, we engaged in an unplanned experiment in online learning. The inequity of access to broadband and technology devices that has existed since the internet came to school has been exposed and finally, one would hope, will be addressed. Educators, students and families deserve credit for completing this school year in good standing despite the obstacles that were spotlighted when school doors closed.

But access to individual or shared technology devices and high-speed internet are far from the only inequities that undermine student learning in 2020. Other socioeconomic and family-specific factors that support or hinder a student’s ability to succeed include food security, health-care access, adults’ work schedules or how losing one or more jobs affects a family and older siblings’ or adults’ ability to support learning. These and school-specific factors were heightened when schooling went to 100% online.

Schools provide a stable and enriched learning environment for Arizona children and teens. Educators serve as parentis in loco. They create classroom communities that replicate the support a family provides; educators care about each individual child. In the most effective schools, librarians serve as literacy teaching partners with classroom teachers. Fully staffed elementary schools offer music, art and physical education, and secondary schools offer dance, drama, choir, orchestra, band and more.

Schools educate the whole child. Students develop their interests and spark their passions in clubs, on sports teams and by participating in service projects. These activities provide hands-on experience in collaborating, working toward goals and expanding students’ views of future possibilities. These activities prepare youth for succeeding in the workplace, building strong families and growing their communities. They prepare young people for life.

The pandemic should have made all Arizonans aware of the social services our district public schools provide that far exceed their academic mission. Many schools serve students breakfast, lunch and supper as well as meals over the summer. Proper nutrition makes a difference in a student’s ability to concentrate. No child should be expected to learn on an empty stomach.

Schools provide health-care services. In addition to providing first aid, school nurses diagnose common childhood illnesses and refer children and families to free or low-cost providers. Educators, including counselors, notice when youth show signs of emotional stress or physical abuse. They provide support and referrals or enact their reporting responsibilities as each child’s needs warrant.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count profile ranks Arizona’s children 46th in terms of health, education, family/community and economic well-being. According to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Annual Survey of School System Finances only two states spend less than Arizona on per pupil public school funding. Arizona invests $8,239 per student — far below the national average of $12,612. Arizona is 49th in the nation in terms of educator pay.

School districts should not be scrambling to provide students with the basic and necessary digital tools for learning in this century. Districts should not be plunging into debt to provide student meals. Districts should not be scrapping carefully considered plans for adding school librarians in middle schools and music teachers in elementary schools when these improvements have been shown to increase student learning outcomes.

The pandemic has taught Arizonans we must do better for students. Voters can step up where the Legislature has failed. We can invest in education because we know the economic health of our community depends upon a well-educated workforce. Let’s lead by providing a dedicated funding stream that addresses this previously existing crisis in Arizona. Visit #InvestInEd to demonstrate what you have learned from the pandemic and how you can be part of the solution: https://investined.com.

Judi Moreillon, Ph.D., is a former K-12 classroom teacher, literacy coach, school librarian and university-level classroom teacher and school librarian educator.

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