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Schools in Roanoke, New River valleys see increase in failing grades during virtual learning
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Schools in Roanoke, New River valleys see increase in failing grades during virtual learning

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School divisions in the Roanoke and New River valleys reported an uptick in failing grades during the first half of the 2020-21 school year, reflecting a national trend, as students continued to learn in nontraditional ways amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data shared by local districts.

The increase was not uniform across all grade levels, instructional methods and demographics. Virtual learners experienced higher levels, and secondary schools reported more F’s than elementary schools, on average.

Schools are using the data to provide targeted instruction and additional support to those students. Several area divisions are in the process of increasing in-person instruction for the fourth quarter of the school year. School officials also say they are trying to support their students’ mental health and safety, too.

In some cases, school officials believe the decline in grades is indicative of students not logging into their online classes.

“A majority of those F’s ... are kids who are not connecting with anything,” said Roanoke County Director of Secondary Instruction Mike Riley. “They’re not showing up to the Webexes. They’re not turning in work. In some cases, [educators are] calling home, they can’t get in touch with anybody.”

That was particularly true with fully virtual students, Riley told the school board Feb. 11.

F’s accounted for approximately 15% of grades for virtual high schoolers and 11% of grades for virtual middle schoolers in the second nine weeks.

That decreased to 9% and 7% for high and middle school hybrid students, respectively, which was still higher than before the pandemic. Last year, 1% of middle school grades and 4% of high school grades were F’s.

The grade data represent individual grades, not percentages of students.

Riley noted that some students “are really putting the time in ... and still struggling.” He also said that “a large percentage” of online students are successful.

Schools are accepting late work, which Riley predicted will decrease F’s.

Approximately 1,300 fifth grade and secondary students have started to attend four days per week. Those are students who are failing a class, have an Individualized Education Plan or are an English learner. Students can also attend a “help day” on Wednesdays.

Roanoke County officials next week will publicly present their plan to increase in-person instruction during the fourth nine weeks.

Roanoke City Public Schools’ elementary students will be able to attend school in-person four days per week next month, and so will certain middle and high school students, including those deemed “academically vulnerable.”

Across the city, F’s comprised 20% of grades given in the second nine weeks, up from about 7% last year.

The increase was particularly acute at the high school level, where F’s made up 33% of all grades, up from approximately 13% in the same timeframe last year.

“Roanoke City Public Schools is committed to ensuring 2020 does not define the lives of our students, their potential, and their future success,” spokeswoman Kelly Sandridge said in an email. “Literacy is the basis for how we will move forward and how we will help our students to excel and move beyond the learning gaps the pandemic has amplified.”

She added that the school system’s staff has supported students’ mental health and safety, too, through special events, meal distribution and counseling.

“We know they are not isolated from what is going on around them, and they need support,” she said. “We also recognize they are learning life lessons, which will not show up on any test they take or grades they receive.”

Sandridge noted that Hayley Poland, assistant superintendent of equity and student services, was recently appointed to the state education department’s “Virginia LEARNS Workgroup,” tasked with developing remediation and intervention recommendations and identifying best practices to support the mental health of students, families and educators.

“Assistant Superintendent Poland feels very strongly about this and is what led to her placement on the Workgroup,” Sandridge said. “Not only must we address the learning loss brought on by the pandemic, but also the social and emotional learning, which are critical to our student’s success.”

Franklin County Superintendent Bernice Cobbs and fifth grade teacher Anthony Swann, Virginia’s 2021 teacher of the year, have also been appointed to the workgroup, as has Salem teacher Andrea Johnson, Virginia’s 2020 teacher of the year.

A quarter of middle school grades were F’s in the second nine weeks compared to 5% for the same time period last year.

F’s comprised 30% of Franklin County High School grades for the second nine weeks, up from 5% the year prior.

“Data indicates COVID has negatively impacted the performance of students and in person learning is vital,” the grade distribution sheet observed.

Franklin County has changed schedules several times since the start of the school year; most recently, elementary and middle school students are in-person four days per week, and high school students attend two days per week. The school division also offers Saturday tutoring sessions.

Salem City Schools have opened up Wednesday mornings for students who need additional remediation, serving about 400 students. Targeted instruction has “drastically reduced” F’s, Director of Instruction and Career Readiness Jamie Soltis told the school board last month.

The division has encouraged online students failing a class to return to the classroom on a hybrid schedule. The division also plans to soon increase in-person instruction to four days per week for third through 12th grade students.

High school grades can’t be compared year-over-year because of the grading system. But the percentage of middle school F’s given in the second nine weeks increased from 3.9% to 13.1% between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, according to data provided by the district.

A’s and B’s still represent the majority of grades given to middle school students, according to the data.

Montgomery County schools saw a sharp increase in the number of D’s and F’s handed out to its middle and high schoolers in the first quarter of the fall semester compared to the previous year.

The county saw an 152% increase in the numbers of F’s, compared to Q1 2019, and 32% of the county’s 5,000 sixth through 12th graders received a D or an F during the same period, according to data presented to the school board.

Black and low-income students have also been disproportionately affected.

Approximately 45% of Black students received a D or an F; 32% of non-Black students received those grades. A little more than 60% of disadvantaged students — defined as those who qualify for free or reduced lunch — received a D or F, compared to 18% of non-disadvantaged students.

The county’s grades reflect national trends, according to director of secondary education Carl Pauli, who said the school system is trying to help those that need it most.

He said the school system is using a triaged approach to support students with lower grades and is encouraging them to come into the classroom for in-person learning if they are not already doing so.

“We have tried the approach of calling kids who are most in need first to come in for more in-person learning and gone down the list and so forth,” he said.

Pauli also noted in an email that the data indicates that grades “have suffered across the board during the pandemic.”

“Students are struggling with motivation and the ability to maintain focus. Teachers are struggling to engage students and hold them accountable in the remote learning environment,” he wrote. “One of the most frustrating things for teachers has been students who connect remotely but do not actively participate. With their cameras and microphones turned off, there is no way to gauge attentiveness or informally assess understanding.”

Pauli also noted that some students do not complete or submit any assignments, and even when students attempt to remedy the situation, some students remain unresponsive.

Those struggling virtually have seen some improvement when returning to the classroom, according to Pauli.

“Anecdotally, principals have told me that students with grades of D or F who have since begun to attend school in-person have shown great improvement,” he wrote. “However, it still remains a family’s choice whether or not to allow their children to attend school in-person despite our recommendations.”

Montgomery students have the option of returning to full day in-person learning four times a week beginning March 8, with those wanting to remain in a virtual setting also having that option.

Radford’s school system has seen many of the same numbers other districts have in the region.

Dalton Intermediate students — seventh and eighth grades — saw the number of second quarter A’s decline from 61% in 2019 to 48% in 2020. Additionally, F’s increased from 3% to 18% of the total grades given during the same time frame.

F’s at the high school jumped from 4% in 2019 to 16% in 2020.

Pulaski County shared its data by how many students were failing one or more classes in each grade level after the first semester.

Middle school students have struggled greatly during the first semester of hybrid learning, with roughly 13.5% to almost 18% of students failing at least once course during that time, which was at least double, and in some cases, nearly triple what those numbers were last year.

Pulaski Superintendent Kevin Siers and Radford Superintendent Rob Graham both acknowledged that students who need the extra help and attention have struggled the most from virtual learning, with both stating they believe grades will go up once students return to the classroom.

Students who elect to return to the classroom will do so four days per week in Radford beginning March 1, and five days per week in Pulaski beginning March 15.

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K-12 Education Reporter

Claire Mitzel covers K-12 education for The Roanoke Times. Contact her at (540) 981-3334 or claire.mitzel@roanoke.com. Follow her on Twitter: @c_mitzel.

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