Education advocates seek increased flexibility in what school districts are required to do during the COVID-19 pandemic and increased funding to ensure budget stability as schools return to in-person instruction from the Arizona Legislature, which began its session Monday.
Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas said the Arizona Legislature should focus on the COVID-19 pandemic and seek more flexibility in laws that restrict what school districts can do and what they’re mandated to do during a discussion on Arizona PBS’ Arizona Horizon on Jan. 4, 2021.
“But also, in additional funding to make certain that we can sustainably open our schools to in-person instruction as we move forward with the vaccine rollout,” Thomas said.
“We need to make sure that our educators are being supported for the amazing work that they’re doing every single day whether they’re in person, they’re in some kind of hybrid format, or they’re teaching remotely online, whatever is safest for the community,” Thomas said.
The Arizona Legislature should “move away from the politicization of this virus and move towards supporting it directly to make sure our schools and communities are safe.”
Chris Kotterman, director of governmental relations for Arizona School Boards Association, said the Arizona Legislature needs to support the work that districts are doing.
“Our Number One priority in that regard it going to be convincing them to reinvest some of the surplus that’s been created by some artifacts in the lower reimbursement for online instruction back into the system to help pay for some of the costs associated with COVID and making sure that district can have a stable budget going forward throughout the rest of the year,” Kotterman said.
In addition, Arizona School Boards Association encourages the Arizona Legislature to look “at some of what we would consider more unnecessary elements of state law during the pandemic in terms of school district accountability, charter accountability, teacher evaluation,” Kotterman said.
These are “things that add work, but we don’t necessarily think will add value in the current environment,” Kotterman said.
The goal is to save “administrators and teachers time for those things that are super important in the pandemic, which is teaching children, and cutting down on the administrative overhead work that goes on in schools,” Kotterman said.
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Sara Wyffels, Arizona Educational Foundation’s 2021 Teacher of the Year, said flexibility for schools and teachers and budget stability should be key concerns for Arizona Legislators.
That includes “the way that the budget is manifested in the classroom with technology of the lack thereof,” Wyffels said.
“We’re also seeing a lot of teachers out for either being sick or FMLA, and the lack of substitutes and the teacher shortage does affect the education of our students,” Wyffels said.
“There are substitutes in the classroom that aren’t necessarily fully qualified to be taking a long-term sub job,” Wyffels said.
“On top of it, we just really need support and if we (teachers) can actually have a seat at the table and share the practicality of their decisions, I think that would be helpful,” Wyffels said.
Impact of Prop. 208 on education funding
Arizona Horizon Host Ted Simons asked about the impact of Prop. 208 on how the Arizona Legislature proceeds on education funding,
“With Invest in Ed passing at the ballot box, we really have an opportunity to bring in a new revenue stream directly to the classroom and those that support the classroom,” Thomas said.
“We’re hoping that the Treasurer, the Governor, the Legislature, and everyone gets these dollars to the classrooms that need this,” Thomas said.
“We crafted this bill before the pandemic was upon us. We were already in a funding crisis in Arizona. We need these dollars,” Thomas said.
“We desperately need these dollars to reward the people who are staying in our district schools – our classroom teachers, our counselors, our social workers, our school bus drivers, everybody that interacts with students on a daily basis,” Thomas said.
“We need to make sure schools have the funding they need to not only meet the crisis that we were in, but also confront all of the associated costs with battling this virus,” Thomas said.
“We need to move as fast as we can to make sure that that is implemented immediately and fully into our school budgets this coming year,” Thomas said.
Expanding broadband internet access is key
Another key issue is broadband internet access, Kotterman said.
“Broadband is one of those issues that no one thinks about until they really need it, and we really need it right now,” Kotterman said.
“The problem is it takes time to get in place, and it’s not something you can put in place on an emergency basis,” Kotterman said.
“What lawmakers need to do is really focus on everyone’s area of influence,” Kotterman said.
“The state’s area of influence is partnering with districts to provide some partnership with providers to lower the cost of high-speed internet, as well as really encouraging providers to build the infrastructure out to rural Arizona,” Kotterman said.
“The federal government can provide support through E-Rate and other programs,” Kotterman said.
“Everyone has to know their responsibilities when it comes to broadband, and we have to treat broadband internet as a public good and not something that people who can afford it should have,” Kotterman said.
“When we put school online, all of a sudden broadband becomes a public necessity not just a nice to have thing,” Kotterman said.
Virtual and in-person learning
There are ways to better facilitate remote learning, Wyffels said.
“What I really found as an amazing resource through virtual learning and in this time is collaboration and creativity and innovation,” Wyffels said. “When we feel a little less stressed or maybe more open to create and be innovative.”
If the “Legislature would get a group of teachers together, they would be very surprised at the amazing ideas that educators have to facilitate virtual learning better and the simple bare bones of having broadband is the place we need to start,” Wyffels said.
When asked if it’s too soon to get kids back into the classroom, Thomas said, “We do our best work when we’re inside the classroom, when we have a full array of electives for our students to be engaged in, we have low class sizes and we have well-paid educators.”
“But we’re in a crisis and we need to look at the long-term impact of the policies we’re that we’re enacting right now,” Thomas said.
“Teachers are paying attention and they’re seeing which districts are keeping their community safe and which districts are putting them at risk,” Thomas said.
“Contracts are going to be going out for the next school year,” Thomas said. “Teachers are going to know who put them at risk, who didn’t listen to science and who did.”
“We’re going to see probably a lot of movement this next coming year with veteran teachers some of these, in particular, East Valley school districts, that seem to be ignoring the crisis that we’re in or at least addressing it differently than every other district in Metro Phoenix,” Thomas said.
“We need to follow the science and make sure we are doing the best we can by our students, but that we’re also not sacrificing the safety of our school employees, our students and their families in the process,” Thomas said.
“As this virus continues to mutate, we need to continue to be flexible and make sure that we’re not putting our families of our educators or our students at undue risk,” Thomas said.
Right now, teachers are experiencing “a mixed bag of a lot of emotions,” Wyffels said.
“We can only do our best when we feel safe, and that goes the same for our students,” Wyffels said.
“A lot of us in-person right now are not feeling safe,” Wyffels said. “We feel like we could do our best work for our student and as educators virtual right now until our health department metrics are back in the green.”
Assessing student learning
Assessing student learning during the pandemic has become more of a challenge, Kotterman said.
“Our testing system, which is we use for accountability, for better or worse, is designed to have students assembled in one place and deliver an assessment, and that’s not going to be possible if we can’t get this pandemic under control,” Kotterman said.
Many people would like to see a test administered so we know where students are at Kotterman said.
“The problem with that is that the test we administer every year really isn’t designed to tell you how much a student has learned or not learned. That’s not what it’s for,” Kotterman said. “It’s designed to tell you if they’ve mastered a certain set of standards, which they can learn a number of different ways.”
“The Legislature should take this opportunity to look at the accountability system for future years,” Kotterman said.
“If what you want to know is how students perform relative to themselves – it’s called a norm-referenced test – and their peers then that’s a different kind of test than we have today,” Kotterman said. “If that’s what we want, then we should look at doing that.”
“For the near-term it’s going to be tough to get an assessment together,” Kotterman said. “We’re going to have to do it unless the government tells us that we don’t have to.
“Districts will figure that out, but the logistics of it and the quality of the information that you’re going to get we think is not worth the administrative work and cost it’s going to take just to get some numbers on paper.”
“Yes, it’s important to have that information, but there are other ways to get it after the pandemic has subsided,” Kotterman said.