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Many Arizona students lack internet, schools improvise

State schools chief Kathy Hoffman, backed by Gov. Doug Ducey, details what happens now with an order to keep classrooms shut through the end of the academic year. PHOTO BY HOWARD FISCHER/CAPITOL MEDIA SERVICES

State schools chief Kathy Hoffman, backed by Gov. Doug Ducey, details what happens now with an order to keep classrooms shut through the end of the academic year. PHOTO BY HOWARD FISCHER/CAPITOL MEDIA SERVICES

As a junior high dance teacher, Jasmine Benton has always had to be flexible, but now this fourth-year teacher is being tested more than ever.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced schools across Arizona and much of the nation to stop in-person classes and teach remotely. As schools make the transition, they’re finding on average only about half of their students have access to the internet, making it harder for them to deliver lessons and homework — and some haven’t heard from their students or families since they closed.

Benton teaches at Kino Junior High School in Mesa, which gets the most Title 1 funding in all of the district, and is one of dozens of districts across the state where students largely don’t have internet. With limited access and resources, pending more from the state and federal government, Benton and other Arizona teachers are doing what they can.

While her district and others work to get students online, Benton is pulling instructional videos from local dancers and sending them to her students, who then learn it and record themselves doing it. It’s not ideal, but she’s making it work

“I don’t think anybody was ready for this,” Benton said. “This is something I don’t think anyone has been through — teachers, students, families, anybody. Even though we weren’t prepared for it, educators are flexible.”

Benton and her students are dealing with a situation along with dozens of other districts scattered around the state that lack internet access. Teaching in a pandemic is a work in progress for many county superintendents who say they’ve been caught off guard and are hesitant to say they’re ready now, and even less so if they’re told to trudge further into uncharted territory.

Superintendents from urban and rural parts of the state shared surveys and estimates of how many students have access to the internet; urban districts on average reported 80% connectivity, while rural areas were less consistent, averaging 60% or lower.

But even for students who do have internet access, they’re oftentimes sharing computers with parents working from home or other siblings who need to do schoolwork. This is prompting some districts to check out laptops to students and are becoming more flexible with deadlines and grading — some refusing to give a student any grade lower than they earned before spring break.

Jasmine Benton

Jasmine Benton

Benton’s students are often using their phones to complete their assignments with oftentimes spotty internet access.

These preparations from schools come after Gov. Doug Ducey and Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman extended the closure of public schools for a second and final time this year to protect students from the spread of COVID-19.

The two announced this in a joint statement in which they stressed it was a difficult but necessary decision that was the safest outcome for students. This is aimed to give parents and teachers “as much certainty as possible” to plan ahead, the joint statement said.

“While this isn’t the outcome any of us wanted, we are grateful for the partnership of schools around the state, who have stepped up to offer virtual and take-home learning opportunities for our students,” Ducey and Hoffman said in the statement.

“Our number one priority will continue to be health and safety, and we will continue to work closely with public health officials to make the best decisions for kids, families, and our school communities.”

The two also announced on April 8 the state would distribute 200 internet hotspots for communities that needed it. But until those are delivered, students like Benton’s can safely pick up homework packets at the school so they don’t fall behind.

Responses from superintendents show clear socioeconomic disparities between rural and urban districts that further fragment into larger problems district by district.

“I don’t think anybody is ready, let’s just call it what it is,” said Dustin Williams, Pima County Superintendent. “We’re being productive and our communication is where it needs to be, but there’s no way anybody in any county could plan it.”

Williams said Pima County and every other district in the state is surveying families to see what their needs are and how to best fill them. No statewide metric was immediately available, census data and independent research show about 80% of Arizonans, on average, have internet access — but there are wide variations of speed, types of devices and other

Of the superintendents that responded, all echoed Williams and said for students who don’t have access to the internet, paper packets will either be mailed, dropped off by school bus, and provided with free meals given by districts. Some districts are also allowing families to pick up computers or hotspots to provide internet

What makes it harder for some schools to follow through is providing for families that have no technology at all. In Pima County schools, at least 15% to 20% of students fit that

Schools in Pima County and other districts like it, Williams said, are teaching through a combination of online and physical packets that encourage parent involvement. Teaching children, delivering packets and getting through this situation breeds many challenges that can and only will be solved one

“All of them are going to be overcome with proper communication and a lot of kindness,” Williams said. “If you’re not answering questions, then people are hypothesizing and making up their own stuff and then that’s where you really get panic in the community.”

Benton said she knows this can be a stressful time for her students and their families and hopes her class can continue being a place where they can forget about their stresses for a moment. She has always tried to make her class a safe environment for them and it might be one of the few things keeping them active when they’re stuck in the

There are a lot of negative aspects of this pandemic to latch onto, but Benton said she’s always been someone who looks for the silver lining. Through this difficult time that has no end in sight, she’s learned a lot about herself and her fellow teachers.

“For me, as an educator, it has made me be more creative and more introspective because I’m having to do these things that I never did,” Benton said. “People are really coming together and lifting each other up and I really appreciate that especially because this is like such an uncertain time. Like it’s really nice to know that you can rely on these other dance artists around

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