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%…