School.

Schools provide our kids with intellectual stimulation, social interaction and educational instruction. 

But for some students, they are so much more. They are a refuge, a source of stability, and maybe the only place they get a full meal throughout the day. 

For these students, school isn’t just a place to learn. It is a lifeline. 

The coronavirus upended all of our lives in countless ways – with school at the top of the list. It’s understandable that many parents, teachers, and districts are exploring virtual learning options until the pandemic passes. 

But for many students, “virtual learning” is not an option. How do you learn online if you don’t have access to the internet? Or a computer? Or for that matter, a home? What if your parents work in essential industries, like health care or law enforcement? 

This is a reality for thousands of students in our state. If education, especially public education, really is about kids – all kids – we must confront it with clear eyes and a commitment to truly serving all students. 

Data shows nearly 25,000 Arizona students experienced homelessness at some point in the school year. Of these, 628 students were unsheltered, 5,362 were in shelters, 1,660 were in hotels/motels and 15,285 were doubled up.

Meanwhile, an estimated 335,000, or 29 percent, of Arizona students have no connection to online learning.

For children with learning disabilities, our Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) has allowed us to continue their customized education in a way that meets their unique needs. But many services simply cannot be replicated in many homes, including some programs for children of special needs and those who are learning English as a second language.

I applaud Arizona’s parents and teachers for doing everything possible to make the best of our dramatically disrupted school years. They have worked hard, sacrificed greatly, and adapted by creating innovative learning opportunities. 

We need options for parents, stability for our schools and certainty for our most vulnerable students. 

That’s part of the reason I am grateful to the Arizona Department of Education, the Governor’s Office and the education stakeholders involved in developing the Arizona: Open for Learning plan. 

Schools need more resources, guidance from public health experts and flexibility to provide high-quality instruction to all students, regardless of their income or situation at home. This plan provides for those needs. 

It also requires districts to provide our most at-risk students with a place to go if virtual learning from home isn’t an option, ensuring no student is left to fend for himself or herself when instruction resumes. 

As someone who has long advocated for every kid and family in Arizona to have access to the best educational opportunities, I applaud our leaders for prioritizing families in greatest need at this time, including households with parents serving on the frontlines of the pandemic. We should continue to share information about options so that every student gets the quality education they deserve.

This school year will undoubtedly be one of the most challenging in our lifetime. By working together, with the well-being of every child in mind, I trust we can and will lead our students through a successful year. 

 

-Jenny Clark serves as the executive director of Love Your School in Chandler. She is a native Arizonan and a mother of five.