By Colleen Sparks
A year after the COVID-19 pandemic shook the country; all aspects of life in North Central are still strained with no clear indication as to when things could return to normal.
The highly contagious and sometimes deadly virus around the world has heavily impacted the mental and physical health and economy of the community and world.
While vaccines that are highly effective at preventing COVID-19 are being provided around the state, there are still tremendous challenges residents are struggling with as they attempt to support themselves, care for their families and stay healthy.
“It’s just such a wonderful community,” said Kenneth Baca, superintendent of the Madison Elementary School District. “Oftentimes in the midst of turmoil and change a community will reveal itself. For the most part our parents, our families have been very understanding and patient.”
However “public education wasn’t set up” to teach students in the way it has had to since the pandemic began, Baca said. Students in the Madison district and other districts and schools around Arizona were forced to close their campuses last spring and switch to virtual/online learning. Some districts and schools brought students back for in-person learning but then closed campuses again and returned to online classes when the numbers of COVID-19 cases spiked in the Valley.
Students in the Madison Elementary School District could return to in-person classes or continue learning at home virtually, as of Feb. 22.
“We still need to ensure that we stick to our mitigation plan, continue to keep as much as possible the proper (social) distance, be totally masked and still make an effort to make sure staff and students are equally safe and protected,” Baca said.
The Madison district and others around the state, as well as the city of Phoenix provided laptops to students who did not have them at home to use for virtual classes and provided WiFi hotspots for families.
However, experts say some children have had difficulty learning online while others have handled it with ease. They also have said students have missed out on critical social-emotional development that they normally would gain in person.
The Osborn Elementary School District plans to bring students back for in-person learning on March 29, though that could change depending on COVID-19 cases in the community. Students who choose to can remain in classes online. Staff members and students will be required to wear masks at all times, except when eating.
“In Osborn we really stress the fact that we’re not just here for that academic excellence side of things but also for reaching the emotional intelligence of students, so connections, building community,” said Osborn district Superintendent Michael Robert.
Robert said he does not expect students will be performing at the same levels academically they have been in previous years this year because of the pandemic. However, he said parents have learned how resilient children are and teachers have learned new ways of delivering instruction online.
At Xavier College Preparatory, about half the students have been taking classes online while the other half have been coming to campus for in-person classes since August, said Sister Mary Joan Fitzgerald, BVM, president of the private girls high school. The school had an advantage as it was already using Canvas, a Web-based learning management system, prior to the pandemic starting.
“We’ve had support from our parents,” Fitzgerald said. “The teachers have just stepped forward and made it possible.”
Non-profit organizations also have been going through hard times.
Many non-profit organizations have had to cancel in-person fundraising events that draw large crowds, switching to online formats, said Kristen Merrifield, CEO of the Alliance of Arizona Nonprofits. Many non-profits rely on those in-person fundraisers to support their work.
Non-profit organizations have seen demand increase as residents need more help with housing, food and other basic needs. One benefit is operating costs have likely decreased with people working from home and in-person fundraisers canceled.
“Everyone has a voice and I encourage everyone to know who your elected officials are and send them an email, write a note, put a phone call in and just mention how important non-profits are to you personally,” Merrifield said.
It is easy to see how the pandemic has hurt local restaurants, as they have had to reduce capacity in their buildings and adjust their menus to provide more carryout dishes. About 1,200 restaurants around the state have been forced to close.
Steve Chucri, president and CEO of the Arizona Restaurant Association, said there was $13.5 billion in revenue generated from restaurants around the state in 2019 and that number dropped to $11.5 billion last year.
“We pivoted very well into going to takeout mode and to-go orders, which has really been the bridge to the huge gap in sales that we lost,” Chucri said.
Phoenix City Grille owner Sheldon Knapp said the pandemic has impacted him professionally and personally. The long-time restaurant adapted its menu to make its dishes more carryout-friendly and several servers resigned as they were not earning as much money in tips as they could receive through unemployment benefits. Receiving a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan “was a godsend,” Knapp said.
“That loan got us through the darkest months and allowed us to continue doing what we’re doing,” he said. “Between the recession and pandemic, it’s the two worst things I’ve faced.”
Other locally owned businesses also are seeing fewer customers, said Thomas Barr, vice president of business development for Local First Arizona.
“The decrease in foot traffic, people staying home to stay safe has really affected sales,” Barr said.
Many businesses have started selling their merchandise online. You can find small businesses in the state by visiting shop.localfirstaz.com.
Barr encourages businesses that qualify to apply for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. To learn more, visit sba.gov.