Dr. Jill Biden joined Arizona residents on a Zoom call on September 10, 2020, to discuss the challenges Arizona school districts face as they move towards reopening this fall. Biden, who had previously taught for 30 years, detailed some of the fears parents and educators now have as they wrestle with the decision of students' return.
"This year, for educators and parents and students, those feelings of excitement have turned into anxiety," Biden said. "The playgrounds are still. Some classrooms are dark as the bright young faces that should fill them are now confined to boxes on a computer screen."
Such is the case for the Laveen School District and the Phoenix Union High School District. Both districts began the school year with fully virtual learning, but have been monitoring the situation to reinstate in-person classes as soon as health guidelines allow.
Superintendent Dr. Jeff Sprout announced his intention for Laveen schools to reopen this October following benchmarks set by the Arizona Department of Health Services and the Maricopa County Department of Public Health.
"The good news is that the data is trending towards the Laveen School District meeting the public health benchmarks," Sprout said in a newsletter to Laveen families. "We will monitor the data for another few weeks to ensure the trend continues. We are hopeful that we can safely begin the on-site instruction option after fall break" on October 12.
The Phoenix Union High School District has not yet announced plans to return.
Biden also stressed that students of color and students with essential workers as parents will be "most vulnerable" to the challenges reopening school presents. She advocated for better resources and more mental health support for students.
"Going forward, we're going to have to make big changes to the status quo," Biden said. "This crisis has shined a bright light on the systemic inequities in our education system. We need to identify best practices to address these gaps and provide funding to implement them."
Biden attributed these challenges to President Trump's leadership, a sentiment Arizona Superintendent Kathy Hoffman also shared.
"It's the failure of the Trump administration and their failure to control the virus in the spring that has gotten us to where we are here today," Hoffman said. "In Arizona, just to give some context, we had some of the highest COVID numbers over the summer that peaked and made it so incredibly challenging to plan for this current academic school year."
Hoffman referenced a digital divide as one of the hurdles Arizona families have to overcome.
For Laveen resident Clarice Chiago-Jones, whose daughter attended Betty Fairfax High School before switching to ASU Preparatory Academy, this divide is not something they have to worry about, but she knows this experience is not universal.
"My daughter would be in the comfort of our home," Chiago-Jones said in an email. "I also realize we had the means — she had a laptop, we have Wi-Fi, she has a place to do school work. I am completely aware that many families do not have that option. It is these families and communities that we need to focus on and make sure they have the resources."
Biden and Hoffman both believe long-term funding and leadership on a national level would help Arizona develop a comprehensive plan to provide schools with these resources.
"No one wants to get kids back to school more than us, but we know we have to do it safely," Biden said. "As a mom and a nana and a teacher, I know that we will do anything to give our children the future they deserve."