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Arizona Schools Face Teacher Shortage Exacerbated By Pandemic

LAUREN GILGER: As COVID-19 numbers worsen here in the state, many schools are returning to online or hybrid learning. Just last night, Chandler and Gilbert School districts  revisited their plans for in-person classes following the winter break. Chandler's governing board voted to shift most of its 46,000 students to online instruction through Jan. 19. It also lowered the threshold of cases that would trigger closures of individual school sites. Here's Governing Board President Barb Mozdzen.

BARB MOZDZEN: We will be revisiting this. And if our community steps up to help solve this problem, we can get our kids back in school. I want kids back in school.

GILGER: The Gilbert district voted to have all schools returned to hybrid classes now through Jan. 29. Late last week, the state's top schools official, Kathy Hoffman, called on Gov. [Doug] Ducey to order all public schools to return from the holiday break with only distance learning for two weeks unless they had a waiver from state health officials. But the governor quickly denied that request, calling it a local decision. And now a new survey from the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association shows Arizona teachers — Arizona's teacher shortage continues in the state as schools are attempting to balance online and in-person learning amid the pandemic. The results of a December, December 2020 survey of Arizona schools shows about 27% of teachers — teacher vacancies here remain unfilled, and nearly half of those vacancies are filled by teachers who aren't certified. I spoke with Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman more about all of this earlier this morning, beginning with how the two issues are tied. How has the pandemic affected the teacher shortage here?

KATHY HOFFMAN: Well, straight from the survey, we can see that just over 500 teachers indicated that they had resigned or retired due to [COVID-19] — that that had been reported to their school or district. So we can see right there, you know, 500 teachers is significant for Arizona because we cannot afford to lose a single teacher. So I do believe that teachers are worried about their own personal health or the health of their families and making these difficult decisions.

GILGER: So what do you think needs to be done to, I guess, to alleviate that? Like, there is some light at the end of the tunnel in terms of a vaccine coming down the pipe, but is there any way to sort of stem the tide and keep teachers in the classroom or the virtual classroom in the meantime?

HOFFMAN: I do think that the vaccine is the light at the end of the tunnel, but on top of that, we're also about to receive a significant amount of federal stimulus funding for education, which is about four times more than we had previously received from the CARES Act funding. And so we are currently evaluating and doing some strategic planning around how to best utilize that funding. But I do think that by infusing these funds into our schools strategically, that can also help make sure that teachers and educators feel safe in their schools and also supported in terms of professional development and also making sure we're taking care of their own mental health and social, emotional well-being.

GILGER: Is this something you're hearing from teachers, from school boards in terms of concerns? Like, are teachers saying, you know, "I don't think I can do this. I'm afraid for my own health?"

HOFFMAN: Yes, the health and safety is the top concern I've heard. One of the other top issues that's come up from school leaders, that they've indicated, that teachers have resigned because they are struggling with the technology. So either they don't have adequate internet access at home and are struggling to connect and engage with their students or they just don't have the skills. And they, they say, "This isn't what I signed up for." And, and especially for some of our teachers that are were already close to retirement, it just — we just can't hold onto them because this is a huge shift and transition to a completely different style of teaching and learning in Arizona.

GILGER: Is that one of the places — the technology — is that one of the places where the new federal funding could, could help?

HOFFMAN: Absolutely. So it can be used for purchasing technology. It can be used for professional development and training teachers and educators on how to use the technology. And we already used a significant amount of our CARES Act funding over the past several months with ASU and the University of Arizona to provide high quality professional development for teachers and how to, how to be tech savvy and engage their students when they're, when they're utilizing distance learning.

GILGER: There's also the always the issue of teacher pay, though, when it comes to the teacher shortage in the state. There have been many efforts now to, to boost teacher pay. Has any of that made a dent? Where do things stand?

HOFFMAN: Well, unfortunately, Arizona still has amongst the lowest pay for teachers in the country. The 20x20 plan made a difference, but it did not go far enough. Prop. 208 will make a significant difference, which is really what our educators need. However, we will not start to see those funds until April of 2022. So more than a year out until our teachers and educators will start to see that, those pay raises.

GILGER: I want to spend the last few minutes, Superintendent, talking about the coronavirus and going forward with the spring semester. Last week, of course, you called for the governor to go into a two week school quarantine, essentially, having everyone work remotely for a few weeks coming out of the break. And he rejected that. And this comes as you know, Arizona has the highest rates of new [COVID-19] infections in the country right now. At the same time, those schools have not shown exactly that they are the nexus of a lot of the spread of the virus. So what are your concerns going forward? What would you like to see happen?

HOFFMAN: I think that there are cases where, you know, when everyone is wearing a mask and they have strong mitigation strategies in place, then in that type of situation, it's possible where you could have zero cases in a school environment, especially in some of our rural communities. But even in our rural communities, we are seeing that the hospitals do not have ICU beds available. So I think it's an, it's an extreme risk to take. And I, I spoke with a superintendent yesterday from a rural district who said, "Our students don't have internet. So how are we to educate them? If we were to transition back to distance learning, we would go back to delivering packets to them," which is the worst-case scenario. So this is completely the worst situation to be in where there's, there's no ideal solution. But I think we're all trying to make the best decisions we can with information we have. And I do think, I do think there's a light at the end of the tunnel. So that's why I asked for, I only asked for two weeks just to get us through this holiday surge and so that people could get tested and, and the vaccines could continue to roll out, to just give us a little bit more time for us to return to safe learning.

GILGER: All right. Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman joining us this morning. Thank you so much for coming on The Show.

HOFFMAN: Thank you for having me.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.