Editor’s note: Herald/Review Media is launching an in-depth series on education in Cochise County. This is the first in the series, and the second of two parts.

The demands of COVID-19 have made their mark on Arizona’s education system. Schools across the state have cycled through distance, hybrid and in-person learning formats to accommodate safety guidelines.

With the hasty transition to distance learning over the past school year, and the recent surge of cases in Cochise County and Southern Arizona, how has this format affected students, parents, teachers and school administrators?

Along with parents and teachers, many superintendents in Cochise County and the state have noticed mixed feedback along with declining student performance.

According to Cochise County Superintendent Jacqui Clay, the decision between each learning model is made with consideration to multiple avenues.

Clay said the first area of consideration is the Arizona Department of Health Services COVID-19 benchmarks for returning to in-person instruction.

The benchmarks are number of cases per 100,000 individuals, percent positivity and percent of COVID-like illnesses. From these three categories, there are three categories that determine distance, hybrid or in-person learning formats based on a community’s benchmark data.

Second, Clay said that superintendents consider the feedback and guidance from weekly county superintendent board meetings, which includes advice from Canyon Vista Medical Center, Copper Queen Community Hospital, Chiricahua Community Health Center and Benson Hospital.

After receiving data from these two areas, superintendents bring that information to their local school boards, which make a decision on the learning format for their districts.

“Ultimately, it is up to the district school board and superintendent what delivery to choose,” Clay said.

Most communities have told school boards they prefer in-person learning and noted the decline in student performance.

“The parents, while they are very understanding of why we had to do the distance learning, all of them wanted their kids back in school,” said Karl Uterhardt, superintendent and principal of Cochise Elementary School District near Willcox.

Uterhardt said student participation in the spring of 2020 was 60% to 80%, with some students not participating at all.

Uterhardt said his district provided packets of assignments parents could pick up at the beginning of the week and return at the end of the week.

“Back then it was panic mode, now it’s much smoother,” Uterhardt said.

Uterhardt said the district began its first week of school this year online via Google Classroom and will be transitioning to in-person instruction the week of Jan. 11.

Douglas Unified School District Superintendent Ana Samaniego said the district has 86% student participation with distance learning.

In keeping distance learning, Samaniego said that in addition to accessing the data from the county Health Department, “We took input from teachers, parents and students, and that’s been our guiding factors in making this decision. … We have a lot of residents, who are U.S. citizens, that are going back and forth (across the border), so our board really considered that.

“The general feedback is coming from the parents and staff, they’re appreciative that the district didn’t force an in-person or hybrid format. A lot of our parents were very concerned with sending their kids to school and the staff was concerned about having the students in the classroom.”

Samaniego said the district will decide if it will continue distance learning at a February board meeting.

“Douglas is a rural town, and we’re having difficulties providing the resources for an online learning platform,” Samaniego said. “DUSD’s online platform has its challenges within students participating and having the adequate resources, whether that’s internet or devices. The challenge for the parents is the seat time for the students on the computer, the teachers really miss that building learning component.”

Sierra Vista Unified School District Administrative Assistant Alan Ramsey said SVUSD will continue its distance learning format until the district reaches moderate or minimal spread in all three AZDHS benchmarks.

“We believe that the best learning environment for our students is in the classroom, face to face with a caring and qualified teacher,” Ramsey said. “Unfortunately, the pandemic has required us to modify our teaching strategies in order to provide both a safe place to learn as well as one that is instructionally sound. … We realize that distance learning is not optimal for all grade levels, but at the same time, recognize that health and safety is a paramount concern. We must provide some degree of predictability and stability for families and staff. Opening and closing schools or the district every two or three weeks based on changes in the state benchmarks is not sustainable.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said distance learning has highlighted many inequities within the education system, notably the digital divide.

“While many schools have transitioned to an online instructional model, that is simply impossible for many of our families,” Hoffman said. “Either due to lacking broadband infrastructure or the cost of internet services many students are left out of the opportunity for valuable face time, even if through a screen, with their teachers for instruction.”

Hoffman said while data is preliminary, “We have seen a decline in student performance this academic year. Anecdotally, I have heard stories of students struggling with challenges brought on by distance learning such as not being able to do science experiments or play their favorite instrument in music class. These academic shortfalls also have a major impact on the social-emotional well-being of our students.”

Hoffman requested that Gov. Ducey require schools to remain closed for the first two weeks of the semester to provide an adequate social distancing period from the holidays, but the request was not considered.

When asked about her plan going forward, Hoffman replied, “I continue to urge all schools to follow the ADHS benchmarks and consult their local health department when considering which instructional model to follow based on the level of community spread in their area.”

Clay encourages concerned parents to share their suggestions for the distance learning format on the “Comments/Questions/Suggestions” page on the county superintendent website onhttps://www.cochise.az.gov/schools/commentsquestionssuggestions-school-superintendent

Additionally, Clay encouraged educators, support staff and the public to attend her virtual conference on Jan. 23 titled Innovations in Education.

Clay suggests the community “communicate, encourage each other, being patient with each other, sharing ideas, working closely with the educators and continue to provide structure, which was the one thing taken away from our students.”

“(For) our educators, this is something they have never had to do. It’s an extreme leadership challenge and I believe from the bottom of my heart, that they are doing the right thing,” Clay said. “Have patience, we need to be patient with each other. We are going to get through it, we are an amazing county. Even though we may get on each other’s nerves, we are a family and nobody can take that love away.”

“Arizona currently sits as one of the worst hotspots of COVID-19 in the world, and so long as the virus rages through our communities, our schools and students will be unable to safely reopen for in-person instruction,” Hoffman said. “I urge every Arizonan to think of what children in their community are missing out on – academically, socially and emotionally by not being in the classroom. We all have a responsibility to our communities to stop the spread by staying home when possible, wearing a mask and getting vaccinated if/when you are able to.”