On Monday, a letter signed by the Arizona Department of Education, Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman and numerous education stakeholders across the state expressed to Arizona’s congressional delegation a need for further K-12 funding to “mitigate the impact of COVID-19.”
While expressing gratitude for the roughly $277 million in funding appropriated through the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act, the letter conveyed “new and unexpected costs” imposed on schools by the pandemic — including the areas of technology, sanitation and additional staff — that are likely to carry into the next academic year.
“Even on a basic level, as a parent, at the beginning of every school year we’re given a supply list of things that the school needs — things like tissues and Clorox disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer,” said Erin Eccleston, vice president of community engagement for Expect More Arizona, local education agency and letter signee. “Now the supply chain for that is completely broken and parents may not be able to acquire those items, so that will now be on the school and the district and the state, really, to help provide those resources for these classrooms. That’s just one really clear example. It sounds so small, but when you’re talking about the number of classrooms we have around the state, what would it look like to have to provide all of those supplies on their own without parents helping out?”
And as social distancing remains a recommended practice, Eccleston noted that this potential adjustment is something schools simply are not outfitted for — both structurally and financially.
“Schools are not built for social distancing,” she said. “And knowing that social distancing is going to be, more than likely, a requirement within our state and nationally until there’s a vaccine, how can we really do that in schools and what’s the process going to look like and what are the resources that’s going to require? There’s so many unknowns as to how we can truly ensure the safety of every student and what kind of capacity increases are going to be needed and what structural changes need to be made. We need to recognize that it will be very difficult for Arizona to manage the revenue side of that, the cost of those changes, on our own.”
Another challenge in need of financial attention, according to the letter, is technological inequity. As statewide closures have illuminated the expanse of the digital divide between students who have access to resources like broadband and electronic devices and students who do not, the consensus is that “additional resources are needed to ensure comprehensive K-12 education plans reach every child.”
However, as the Arizona Joint Legislative Budget Committee currently projects a $1.1 billion shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year, educators are left questioning how this will affect their 2020-2021 budgets and asking governmental leaders to take action with the uncertainty of the future in mind.
“It is the responsibility of our state and federal government to ensure that all communities, particular under-resourced and rural communities and tribal nations, have access to the resources they need to provide equitable remote learning opportunities for their children,” the letter stated. “This includes preparation for future statewide or regional school closures that could disrupt learning on a large scale without critical investments in remote learning.”
Among other stakeholders beseeching the state’s congressional delegation “to fight for additional federal appropriations for K-12 education in the next relief and stimulus package” is the Southwest Technical Education District of Yuma (STEDY).
“I’m a proponent of local control, so anytime we can have a voice in response to situations that may have an effect on us locally, I would like to be able to be an advocate or a voice at the table,” said STEDY Superintendent Kevin Imes. “Locally, I want to be able to support Yuma and look after the needs of our students and families here.”
As a career and technical education district (CTED), Imes expressed STEDY’s appreciation for the funding that’s been appropriated thus far as well as the inclusion of CTEDs in recent CARES Act support.
“Typically the CARES Act funds would be delegated for those local education agencies and school districts that are serving Title I students,” said Imes. “CTEDs don’t receive Title I funds, so typically we would not be privy to that financial support, but now there is a mechanism within that where the governor has discretion to be able to support non-Title I districts. We appreciate, one, that Congress has appropriated, through the CARES Act, money to support schools; and, two, to be able to support those like CTEDs that are not Title I schools.”
According to Imes, receiving additional funding for K-12 education would support a “whole myriad of things” districts and education agencies are now having to consider, such as resources for mental and emotional health, increased cleaning and sanitation measures and professional development to better prepare and equip teachers for an event in which school closures extend or recur.
“Up until COVID we weren’t really forced to do things differently, and now this is forcing us to do things differently — and that in itself affects every aspect of education, from curriculum to instruction to the assessment of students,” Imes said. “That money could be used to help provide professional development in all of those areas. There’s technology issues, there’s safety as well as emotional needs that have arisen as a result of the COVID-19 virus which we weren’t having to support prior to this, obviously. But now that we find ourselves in this situation, we want to be able to support all of our students that are trying to understand and grapple with that.”
As schools, districts and other local education agencies continue to navigate school closures and other unique pieces of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s becoming more clear that the existing need for further assistance on the federal level is critical in ensuring students are presented with sufficient resources and opportunities to excel in the upcoming school year.
“It’s going to require congressional action to help states all across the country,” said Eccleston. “Every state is impacted by COVID-19 closures, regardless of how healthy their budgets were before all this happened. Moving forward, everyone is going to have an increase in need.”
Without support from Congress in this, Eccleston said she’s unsure how schools and their governing districts can effectively implement all of the essential and impending changes necessary for the safe reopening of schools.
“I think laying some of these major issues out in this letter is really important in understanding what our experience has been in transitioning to distance learning as a state, what we anticipate are some of the great challenges to opening up schools safely in the fall and some of the areas that are in particular need and have been hit the hardest,” Eccleston said. “We really need to think about what this is going to look like moving forward and the support of our congressional delegation to be champions for making education a top priority in future economic stimulus plans.”