Kids heading back to school are not only starting out a new school year, they’re starting a “new normal” — a post-pandemic school system. Students last year were faced with obstacles most have not seen in their lifetime, and as they return to school this fall, teachers prepare for new challenges ahead.

Elementary school

Second grade teacher Kristen Owczarzak, who holds a doctoral degree in education, is looking forward to seeing her students in-person again this fall. The Santa Cruz Elementary School teacher has been teaching in Maricopa since 2014 but is anticipating a more unusual start to this school year after the previous.

Owczarzak plans to monitor her students more closely to ensure that each student is on track with their grade level. Revision and reteaching will be key to her plan of attack, as some of the subjects may come more difficult to students this coming year.

“I’m anticipating there will be a struggle coming into the school year — some of the more difficult math strategies,” Owczarzak said. “When you have the other students working on other independent work, or they might be working in an independent group together where they have assigned roles, that gives me time to work at my back table with my small group of kids.”

Owczarzak touted the technology that Maricopa Unified School District employed early on in the pandemic to enable every student to learn online seamlessly. Small groups, however, were more difficult last year and especially while online. Owczarzak shared that her students particularly struggled with reading and reading comprehension.

“It’s very difficult not being face-to-face because the kids need to see your mouth and how this would sound,” Owczarzak said. “If you’re lagging with your internet — it’s hard for them to focus on a computer screen.”

SCES will return to using Pearson curriculum for math, and Wonders for reading this coming school year. With the use of Florida Virtual Academy last year, Owczarzak was able to use interactive activities and mini games to keep her kids engaged throughout the lessons. When she went back to in-person teaching in February, she could tell that her students’ reading comprehension skills had taken a hit.

“I’ve always taught in second grade, since 2014,” Owczarzak said. “Where my students typically were, you could tell that they weren’t where they should be. But once I got back to face-to-face in-person, even with the masks and everything, I saw a lot more growth.”

With her incoming second graders this year, she will use informal and formal assessment methods to see what her students need revision in. Sometimes these assessments are as simple as a “thumbs up if you understand,” and other times Owczarzak will do mini quizzes using the students’ computers.

“We’re not as afraid to use technology, I think we’re having more innovative ideas,” Owczarzak said. “I think we were kind of forced to get used to this technology and it opened our eyes and also made us feel like, ‘Hey, I can do this.’”

Owczarzak said she feels the district’s use of technology also helped kids continue to interact with each other despite the lockdown. Her own four children at MUSD schools regularly played online games with their peers and chatted over messenger both in and outside of class. Still, the social toll of a pandemic is no loss to Owczarzak, who is excited to come back to school this school year.

“I think it’s very isolating, not being able to go to school,” Owczarzak said. “Now going into this next year (I’m looking forward to) knowing them all year, because it felt like you knew them but you didn’t really know them.”

Forming those bonds with each other and their teachers will be imperative to a strong start for SCES’ second graders this coming school year, and Owczarzak looks forward to meeting them all on the first day of school.

Middle school

At Desert Wind Middle School, students will see a return of their normal schedule after it became necessary last year to switch to a block schedule in order to accommodate the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. In the block schedule system, students had four 90-minute classes every day and alternated their classes on an A/B schedule. This was done to prevent students from having so many passing periods where they were moving en masse to their next classes.

Students will now enjoy traditional 50-minute periods at DWMS, with more ability to convene with students from other classes in between periods. They will also be able to attend the same classes every day, a big plus in the eyes of eighth grade math teacher Emily Roderick.

“I think being able to see your students each day is important, especially in our core classes, so that there isn’t any drop,” Roderick said. “If a student is absent on a day that they’re supposed to have class, they could potentially not see that teacher then for (up to) a four-day gap.”

Last year, Roderick said that one of the most difficult aspects of teaching online was gauging student achievement over the internet.

“Like — reading the room is not something you can do when you’re not physically with the people,” she laughed.

However, Roderick was able to address these concerns through multiple software programs like Jamboard, a kind of virtual white board that students can use to demonstrate mathematical problems.

This year, DWMS is building a Response to Intervention program into the daily school day during homeroom period, where students identified as needing intervention are pulled into small groups with teachers, support staff, counselors and more. Roderick describes RTI as a protected time to address educational gaps and calls it an “all hands on deck” team effort to address the whole child.

“There are students who get to a point where, ‘I’m struggling, I’m struggling, and I don’t understand this, so I’m just going to give up,’” Roderick said. “We have a really strong philosophy on our campus, led by our administrator. ‘We don’t want students to take themselves out of the game’ — is how he says it.”

School Principal Carlos Alvarado and his team of dedicated educators and counselors work with students to provide support to make their way up the mountain one step at a time, as Roderick says. Though there will be a bit more catching up to do compared to an average school year, Roderick stresses the importance of acknowledging the other areas in which students grew last year.

“I don’t like to hear learning loss as a term,” Roderick said. “The reason I don’t like to hear ‘learning loss’ is because I think so much was learned, but it was different — not necessarily things that were in the curriculum, but their life skills. … Our middle school students had to be more independently motivated.”

Instead, Roderick refers to last year as a lot of unexpected learning — learning about technology, student advocacy and independence. Roderick applauded her coworkers and the parents of her students for also taking on this sudden learning curve.

“I think that unexpected learning is really important to be mentioned,” Roderick said. “Yes, there was some unfinished learning that, looking into next year, we are going to have to address and identify where there are gaps.”

Roderick plans to use a mixture of spiral review and increased revision to both test how much students have learned in the last year and make sure that information is retained. But equally important to Roderick is addressing the isolation and lack of social interaction her students have gone through in the last year.

Middle school is already an emotional period of adolescence, according to Roderick, and these young students were faced with feelings of loneliness at a time when they could not visit their friends or interact socially.

“We had our counselors calling and checking on kids that would maybe miss several days in a row, you know, to just give a personal reach out that we miss you and we need you here,” Roderick said. “On a Google Meet session those topics kind of came up — ‘It’s boring at home,’ or, ‘I am here by myself.’”

Kids were able to support one another virtually in ways they hadn’t before, but Roderick is looking forward to a return to in-person learning to help kids reinvigorate their social lives. Searches of “suicide” and other related topics on school computers were reported last year in MUSD, and Roderick has not forgotten that her students’ social emotional needs sometimes take precedent. In the new school year, she plans to be acutely aware of her students’ mental health post-pandemic.

“There are things that are more important — this is bad coming out of a teacher’s mouth — but more important than the curriculum,” Roderick said. “To me, it’s most important that my kids are OK. My lesson on solving equations might need to wait a day, if something bigger than that comes up.”

As Roderick prepares for the upcoming school year, she can’t help but be excited for the simple things of teaching in-person.

“Just being able to be in-person, and see their smiles and greet them,” Roderick said. “A lot of success in education is due to relationships with the students.”

High school

Come this fall, Maricopa High School students will return to in-person classes, with the exception of those who have chosen to remain online through Maricopa Virtual Academy. Those students returning to the classroom will also be moving back to 50-minute periods, and will find a new component to their school day — a permanent Achieve period.

The Achieve period was introduced in the 2020-21 spring semester as a way to address student performance and offer additional opportunities for growth in academics and extracurriculars. Students who did not master core subjects the previous quarter are given the opportunity to enter reteaching of that subject.

MHS Academic Coach Danielle Davis said this is vital to students, as they do not have to wait for the opportunity for review and are instead offered revision and reteaching concurrently with the subjects they struggle with.

“I know people talk about closing the gap all the time, but when you’re closing the gap, it’s always about ‘what am I closing it with?’” Davis said. “So I think that Achieve piece, and having me as an academic coach, those are intentional ways to close the gap.”

Davis’ position as academic coach at MHS is a new addition to the district. As academic coach she will work with teachers in a supportive role, helping them respond to last year’s academic struggles with targeted strategies, assessments and data. Davis calls herself a tour guide for teachers, shepherding them through the academic world. She hopes that, through Achieve, students will be able to retain information better and for longer.

In addition to reteaching, the Achieve period allows for other students to further their own hobbies and futures. Davis said that last year students were able to hear presentations from multiple local colleges and universities as well as the Navy and Army. The presentations are also recorded for any absent students or those in reteaching.

“I think the Achieve piece really helped with the reteaching,” Davis said. “We’re going to move forward with that this year. When you have kids who are right there, on campus, that’s the best time to get them.”

Coming from her previous role at MHS as a special education teacher, Davis said the last year of schooling has shown that all students are in need of more individualized instruction. Meeting students where they are, and addressing the needs of each student individually, is a trend Davis sees moving well into the future post-pandemic. As part of her role as academic coach, Davis will work with teachers to find their own strengths and pair those teachers with students who are in most need of that particular subject.

Academics aside, Davis said that the main drawback she saw from online learning last year was the social-emotional side.

“While I think some of us may have thought kids learn best through the computer, what I found actually regressed, if anything, would have been the ability to really build strong relationships with our students through a camera,” Davis said. “Not necessarily how we taught or what we taught, but our ability to really be able to greet (them) at the door and laugh and joke.”

In the new school year, Davis hopes to see more greeting, laughing and joking with teachers and their students as they adjust to their new normal.

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Katie Sawyer covers Maricopa and the surrounding area for PinalCentral, including city, education, business, crime and more. She can be reached at ksawyer@pinalcentral.com.