PHOENIX — Kathy Hoffman spent the last four years as the head of Arizona's public schools during unprecedented circumstances.
And she did so after becoming the youngest person ever in the United States to be elected to a statewide office. The pre-school teacher and speech-language pathologist was 32 years old when she won her race in 2018.
"When I first started, of course, I never could've predicted that we would encounter a global pandemic in the middle of my administration," Hoffman said. "But I did know coming in that Arizona had pretty massive challenges in public education."
In an exclusive interview with KTAR News 92.3 FM, Hoffman reflected on her time in office after narrowly losing her re-election bid to Republican Tom Horne in November. The results of a recount release last week confirmed a victory for Horne.
From a widespread teacher shortage and severe underfunding of schools, Hoffman had her work cut out for her when she took office. Then, one year into her tenure, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
It led to a statewide closure of schools, an abrupt shift to virtual learning and mask mandates once schools reopened.
"During the pandemic, we had massive challenges to overcome," Hoffman said.
In the first year of the pandemic, her administration put all its attention and energy into supporting schools and providing them with materials on best practices to operate during a pandemic.
Hoffman said it was an "eye-opening experience" that showed the severity of Arizona's digital divide. Many students, especially from low-income households and in rural parts of the state, lacked access to computers and the internet.
Overall, the pandemic led to significant learning setbacks for students. Hoffman pointed out recent statewide and national test scores show students are rebounding.
She said "some of the most difficult moments" for her during the pandemic occurred when she offered her condolences to school leaders after hearing about teachers, coaches, crossing guards and other staff members who lost their lives to COVID-19.
Hoffman said it was also difficult to hear directly from students about how the pandemic affected their mental health. She shared some students told her they've lost friends to suicide.
All this occurred at a time when Arizona had the nation's worst student-to-school counselor ratio, at 905 to 1. But as Hoffman pointed out, that's changing.
"One of my most proudest achievements has been to reduce our student to school counselor ratio by over 20%, and we're still moving that needle in the right direction," she said.
Hoffman said she's also proud of several "big and innovative" projects made possible by federal COVID relief funds, including the Arizona Teacher Residency Program that aims to help address the state's teacher shortage and the Final Mile Project that brings internet to students in rural Arizona.
The Arizona Department of Education spent more than $200 million federal COVID relief dollars on these and other projects.
"Without the pandemic, there never would've been that type of opportunity to launch some really big, innovative, supportive programs," Hoffman said. "So ultimately, that was the silver lining of this really traumatic and trying time for our community."
During her time in office, Hoffman quickly became a popular elected official within the education community and the Democratic Party. Her loss to Horne surprised many, especially after Democrats won key statewide offices last November.
As she reflects on the future of public education in Arizona, Hoffman said she believes it's important to have "a strong advocate at the helm."
"As superintendent of public instruction, I know I was outspoken at the local level in supporting our schools but also at the national level," she said.
When asked what's next, Hoffman said she is searching for the right opportunity. In the meantime, she's spending more quality time with her husband and their 1-year-old daughter.