How did we get here? Schools, families learn to adapt over years of coronavirus pandemic

Virus Outbreak Arizona Schools
Posted at 6:02 AM, Feb 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-16 08:12:16-05

PHOENIX — Like navigating the coronavirus pandemic itself, there was a learning curve for schools when it came to figuring out major changes like virtual learning.

As we look back at how we got to this point of learning loss, health, safety, and politics were often at odds when figuring out what was best for students — but that's not necessarily something new in Arizona.

Until now, the longest kids were forced out of the classroom in Arizona was about a week. That was in 2018 when teachers walked out in the Red for Ed fight for funding.

Fast-forward two years and fears over spreading coronavirus started closing classrooms.

FULL COVERAGE: Bridging the Education Gap

March 13, 2020, is when the state let the districts decide whether to close after spring break — and some did.

Within two days, Governor Doug Ducey and State Superintendent Kathy Hoffman switched gears, ordering all schools to go remote for two weeks. At that point, Arizona had 13 confirmed cases of COVID-19.

After five more days, March 20, 2020, the school closure was extended into April. By the month's end, more than 11,000 COVID cases spurred the decision to close campuses until the end of the school year.

At that point, districts scrambled to bridge inequities in access by passing out laptops for home learning and figuring out how to keep serving food for students whose only meal comes from school. It was a patchwork of learning but at that point, students were mostly concerned with missing out on sports and prom, and then graduation went virtual.

September 2020 is when the COVID count surpassed 200,000 in Arizona.

The back-to-school season for the 2020/21 year was a mixed bag. Kids learning on hybrid schedules were going from their couches to the classroom and back again. Some working parents teamed up and formed learning pods.

As the calendar turned to 2021, vaccines became available and districts started hosting events to get teachers to roll up their sleeves in hopes of making a full return to campus.

Finally, in August 2021, the first days of school brought nearly all kids back to campus. Outbreaks were still rampant thanks to the delta variant —166 schools had reported cases. Phoenix Union pointed to science requiring masks and others followed suit but the governor played political science and banned mask requirements. That order was later overruled in court.

Here we are in 2022 — the first month headlined by the omicron variant. High school sports games were postponed, teachers were out sick, and struggles to staff classrooms played out statewide. A 40% positivity rate led one district to pull out the laptops again. Everyone else was riding out the latest wave.

Pandemic aside, some argue funding is ultimately at the root of achievement problems in Arizona.

The K-12 budget has never been restored to pre-recession levels. Governor Ducey prioritized federal COVID funds for schools that didn't impose COVID requirements and is now fighting with the feds over the legality of that move. He is spending $27 million on summer learning camps for low-income students who want to attend to catch up. Plus, state legislators must address a budget cap by March 1, or layoffs and budget cuts will be inevitable, according to the state superintendent.