State superintendent calls for equal funding for remote learning, help for mental health

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(Video by Sedona Meadows/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Arizona’s top schools chief on Tuesday called for state funding for remote learning to be allocated at the same rate as funding for in-person learning, and she urged extra help for students and staff members suffering mental issues as the yearlong COVID-19 pandemic stretches into an uncertain future.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman focused on school funding and family friendly policies in her office’s annual State of Education address, with a focus on funding and pro-family policies as they relate to COVID-19 in schools.

“Our students have experienced too many of the pandemic’s hardships firsthand,” she said. “Many have stood in line with their families to receive meals, struggled to learn over unstable internet connections or watched their teachers take on the burden of leading instruction in-person and virtually at the same time.”

Hoffman said she supports a proposal from Senate Republican leaders to fully fund remote learning this year; currently, it’s funded 5% less than in-person learning. That difference, based on Gov. Doug Ducey’s stance, has battered the budgets of Arizona public schools.

“When the state sits on a billion dollar rainy day fund and projects a $2 billion surplus, there is no excuse to not fully fund every school,” Hoffman said in her virtual address, her third as top schools chief.

According to a 2019 report by Education Law Center, Arizona ranks among the lowest in the country in school funding – providing nearly $5,500 less per student than the national average.

Erin Hart, senior vice president for the education organization Expect More Arizona, said its leaders agree with Hoffman’s stance on consistent and sustainable funding, especially for virtual learning.

“Access to internet broadband is not a ‘nice to have’ anymore, it’s a must have,” she said.

Arizona remains a top state for COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people. Hart said schools are doing the best they can based on funding and guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ensure the safety for in-person students and faculty.

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Hoffman also discussed measures to care for the mental health of students and teachers. The Arizona Board of Education’s move to revise counselor certification requirements helped lead to the addition of more than 400 certified counselors in public schools in December 2019, she said.

That has helped during the pandemic, Hoffman said, as experts across the country have raised concerns about the stresses of remote learning.

“Their expertise and training are critical ensuring that we are meeting students’ social and emotional needs,” she said, “so they can continue to focus and grow in their academic learning.”

She emphasized that anyone who needs help should seek it.

“I urge parents and caregivers who are worried about students experiencing mental distress to seek caring, professional help,” Hoffman said. ”The mental well-being of students is critical in their ability to learn successfully and take academic studies authentically without the preoccupation of other critical needs.”

Hoffman also said the Arizona Department of Education has been working to integrate a focus on mental health into schools’ curricula and everyday learning.

Hart said she’s happy with the points made by Hoffman and hopes they quickly lead to positive changes in Arizona schools.

Hart said the key is working together.

“We need to support our kids and teachers and make sure that everybody is going to be successful, whether we’re in a pandemic or not,” she said. “We have an opportunity to step up as a state, and I hope that we can do that collectively.”

Victoria Hill vic-toh-ree-a hil (she/her)
News Digital Producer, Phoenix

Victoria Hill expects to graduate in May 2021 with a master’s degree in journalism. She graduated from ASU in August 2020 with a bachelor’s in journalism and minor in film and media studies.