Ducey Says Arizona’s Students Are Headed Back to School in the Fall. But Are the Teachers?

By Jessica Swarner

May 29, 2020

“What we’ve asked teachers to do is simply create a miracle.”

Gov. Doug Ducey announced Thursday that Arizona students will return to their classrooms this fall. But will the teachers? 

A new USA Today/IPSOS poll shows 1 in 5 teachers nationwide say they are unlikely to return to the classroom in the fall if their schools reopen.

Arizona is already dealing with more than 1,800 teacher vacancies. And, added to the need for teachers to reduce class sizes to maintain social distancing and small groups, a large wave of resignations could be a huge problem for the state. 

Christine Thompson, president of education advocacy group Expect More Arizona, told The Copper Courier her children’s summer camp is maintaining groups of 10 by assigning nine children to one counselor. In contrast, her child’s kindergarten teacher had 25 kids in a classroom. 

“[Schools] don’t have three teachers to put in front of those kids,” Thompson said. “They don’t even have a teacher and two paraprofessionals.” 

Not Enough Money

The USA Today survey of 505 teachers found that only 24% reported being fairly paid. 

Arizona’s median teacher salary falls about $12,000 below the country’s for both elementary and secondary school, making the state one of the worst in the nation for teacher pay. 

And on top of that, 83% reported having an even harder time doing their jobs during the pandemic.

“What we’ve asked teachers to do is simply create a miracle,” Rebecca Garelli, co-founder of Arizona Educators United, told The Copper Courier.

RELATED: How is DeVos’ Attempt to Use Pandemic Funding For Private Schools Playing Out in Arizona?

Garelli said teachers are aware the pandemic may lead to state budget cuts that puts their planned 5% raise for the coming year at risk.

And some teachers could lose their jobs altogether. A Learning Policy Institute report showed that if Arizona were to cut its state education budget by 15%, the state would lose 8% of its teachers. 

“Are they going to have to cut down the staff when really we should be increasing the staff if we’re supposed to be doing smaller class sizes?” Garelli said. 

Not Enough Support

Thompson noted that during the pandemic, educators are taking on an even larger role in trying to meet more than just the academic needs of their students, from helping distribute meals and laptops to planning unique graduation ceremonies while continuing to teach. 

She said with a return to school, teachers need more nurses and social workers to help handle students’ health, as well as more custodians to take up increased cleaning needs resulting from the pandemic. 

And, especially important for children who may have experienced trauma while away from school, is the need for counselors. Currently, Arizona has the highest student-to-counselor ratio-1 to 905-in the nation. 

“When we have the resources to support students, we’re supporting teachers,” Thompson said. 

She pointed out it’s not just more hands on deck needed-it’s also items that make a classroom function.

“My team and I were talking last week about how dependent schools … have been on that supply chain, even for some of the cleaning products,” she said. “And if I can’t go to my local Costco and buy the wipes for myself, my house, how is that going to impact our ability to keep classrooms clean?”  

Concerns Over Safety

Garelli said teachers don’t know what to expect come fall, making it hard to know if they would like to continue on in their jobs. 

“Does [returning] mean fully in person?” she said. “Then I think if that’s the case … there’s going to be a lot of unrest among teachers.” 

“I think the sentiment is yes, we want to go back,” she added. “But what that looks like is going to determine our decision in the next two months.” 

Thompson pointed out that some teachers may be afraid to return to classrooms for their own safety. 

“Much like other professions, we’ve got a workforce that’s close to retirement, which also happens to be in a high-risk category in this area,” she said. 

About two-thirds of the USA Today poll’s respondents said they expected schools to reopen by the fall, but 4 in 10 opposed returning to classrooms until a coronavirus vaccine is developed-a process could take years.

RELATED: What Will Happen In The Fall? School May Be Over, But Teachers’ Worries Aren’t.

Ducey said Thursday that Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman will release a plan Monday concerning how schools will reopen. 

Garelli said that blueprint needs to include multiple solutions to fit different needs as well as backup plans as circumstances change. Thompson echoed the need for flexible solutions.

“There are going to be a lot of changes,” she said. “There are going to be some families who might have immunocompromised family members who just decide they’re going to keep their kids home … and there’s going to be others who are willing to send their kids to school, whether it’s in-person five days a week or some blended model.” 

Most teachers in the poll supported that kind of compromise. About two-thirds supported the idea of holding class in-person a few days per week mixed with remote classes. A majority also supported the idea of having teachers who are especially vulnerable to the virus continue to teach from home while younger, healthier teachers would return to classrooms. 

Thompson said her organization is collecting data from a survey of Arizona teachers that she hopes will allow them to get a better idea of how they are feeling and what they would like to see happen in the fall. 

“We’re far from completely done with all of this,” Thompson said. “And we’re going to have a few more hills in the roller coaster to deal with as we move forward.”

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  • Jessica Swarner

    Jessica Swarner is the community editor for The Copper Courier. She is an ASU alumna and previously worked at KTAR News 92.3 FM in Phoenix.

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