Report card findings: Kids need to get back to school, virtual classrooms are failing students

When schools closed last March due to the coronavirus pandemic, parents and students alike assumed that online classes would be a necessary but temporary move to help mitigate the spread of the highly contagious virus. Here we are seven months later and many students are still at home, receiving an education online. Recent findings from schools show that a higher rate of failure in one or more classes taught online is showing up across the country. The message is clear – students need to get back to school.

It can be scary for parents who worry about children potentially being exposed to the virus by classmates or school staff. It can be of concern to teachers, too, who fear that children will bring the virus into their classrooms. But, according to teaching professionals and parents who are seeing the results of a long shutdown, evidence of the lack of success by students receiving online education outweighs an abundance of caution from adults who do not feel ready to get back to a somewhat normal routine. Brick and mortar schools need to re-open and allow students to thrive in their studies.

In Lacey, Washington, one principal revealed during a school board meeting last week that too many students are failing one or more classes. The high school principal said that nearly half of all students have an F in one or more classes. Students understand that not all of their classmates have some of the necessities they need to keep up with schoolwork outside of the classroom.

During a school board meeting Tuesday, North Thurston’s Principal said nearly half of all his students were getting an ‘F’ in at least one class. It is a new phenomenon not typically seen during regular in-person instruction.

“That sounds shocking but it’s not very surprising at all,” said student Natalie Scott. “Online is showing the deeper divide of students.”

The Timberline High senior also sees her classmates struggling and says sometimes just paying attention is the easiest challenge.

“I don’t have to worry about the bare necessities people don’t have,” she added.

One high school senior noted that students, especially underclassmen, need the social interaction they get at school.

Samir Amin, 18, is spending his senior year studying from his bedroom though he wishes he could be back in class at North Thurston High School in Lacey.

His role in student government student means he is also advising underclassmen and he has seen how some underclassmen exhibit a sense of disconnect.

“What I notice,” he said, “The freshmen aren’t getting that social interaction.”

School districts are looking for ways to help students to make up for the lost time in the classroom. The focus is on reversing plummeting grades and poor attendance. Report cards are out and calls are going out to get back into the classroom before more time is lost. The State of Texas, for example, is mandating that schools get back to normal and prepare students for state standardized testing.

Report cards from the first weeks of the school year show more students than last year failing at least one class. Students are turning in assignments late, if at all; skipping days to weeks of virtual school; and falling behind on reading, educators and parents report. Many parents say they’re exhausted from playing the role of at-home teacher, and some students without support at home are struggling to keep track of their daily workload with limited outside help.

The problems are concentrated among students trying to learn from home, more than 3 million of the state’s 5.5 million public school students, according to administrators’ accounts. The trends are adding urgency to calls for getting more students back into classrooms as quickly as possible.

Some school districts are making extra allowances in order to pass students in classes, even though they don’t actually earn the passing grade. The message is to “do what you can to make sure kids pass.”

Judson Independent School District, in San Antonio, added a note to its grading handbook allowing principals to “grant any exceptions” and “extend grace” to students, letting them make up late work or drop assignments. “We understand that connectivity issues, lack of devices, technological issues with the Student Portal, Canvas, and electronic books may impede a student from submitting their assignments in a timely manner,” the handbook now reads.

Cathryn Mitchell, principal of Austin ISD’s Gorzycki Middle School, sent an email in early October, obtained by The Texas Tribune, alerting all staff to a “campus-wide dilemma.” Almost 25% of students were failing at least one class, including 200 failing more than one subject. She attributed the failures to steep technology learning curves, lack of access to devices and Wi-Fi, shifting reopening guidelines and anxiety over the health risks of on-campus learning.

In Mineral Wells, Texas, the district says “many remote learning students have not been successful at all.” Students are failing multiple courses and are not engaged. Parents are encouraged to bring their children back to school if they are struggling. Otherwise, at-home learning is still encouraged. This, however, goes against the state’s instructions to school districts. Opening schools back up to only struggling students isn’t supposed to be done. Alternatives are defined as “withdraw to homeschool, withdraw and enroll in a charter or private school with virtual learning or request a transfer to another district that offers virtual learning.”

“Several have never logged in or communicated at all in six weeks,” the letter said. “These students are falling desperately behind and if we do not act quickly, they may never recover.”

The district will contact parents/guardians at the end of the upcoming three-week period if their child has been unsuccessful with remote learning.

The district encourages parents to bring students back sooner if it is clear their student is not succeeding.

Teacher unions aren’t making it easy in many districts. Many schools in the Houston Independent School District (HISD) only returned to classrooms earlier this month. Just a few days into their return, teachers staged a sick-out because some schools closed due to confirmed or presumed cases of COVID-19 on campus. Originally, the HISD, the state’s largest school district, had a policy that just one confirmed or presumed case could shut down a school and trigger deep cleaning. That policy has been reversed now. After “collaboration with Houston Health Department, HISD will now close schools and shift their students to virtual learning if there are two or more confirmed cases of COVID-19.” So teachers planned a sick-out to protest revised policies. HISD is moving forward anyway.

The Houston Independent School District released a statement, but did not address the sick out directly. It said that it will “remain focused on providing our students with a high-quality education while ensuring that the health, safety and well-being of both our students and staff are held to the highest standard.”

“Face-to-face instruction will continue to occur with safety measures in place in accordance with guidelines provided by the CDC, state and local health authorities. The health, safety and well-being of our students and staff remains our top priority as we work to meet the educational needs of all families in the district,” according to HISD.

The growing evidence of the harm of keeping students home warrants serious decisions to be made about reopening schools. Within Houston, a consensus of when to re-open schools by different school districts didn’t happen. HISD schools remained closed longer than surrounding school districts. Other school districts in states across the country are dealing with the same situation. Meanwhile, while the adults continue to argue, the students are feeling the effects and it is showing up in their grades.