Failing grade spike with distance learning

The first round of progress reports are being sent home for students caught in California’s experiment with online distance learning this fall, and for many, the grades are not good.

Districts around the Bay Area are reporting sharp spikes in failing grades so far this fall during a term that has largely been taught online over computers to students stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sequoia Union High School District in Redwood City this week reported that the percentage of students with more than one failing grade this fall jumped to 29{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} from 19.7{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} in 2019, a nearly 50{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} increase. Mt. Diablo Unified School District in Contra Costa County reported a similar rise in high school students failing more than one grade — 30.66{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} from just over 19{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} the previous two academic years.

“We’re obviously concerned about that increase,” said Allen Weiner, president of the Sequoia district’s school board. “I’m not sure this is shocking or entirely unanticipated. We know the general challenges of trying to do distance learning have manifested themselves in greater struggles for a lot of our students.”

The reported grades are progress reports, and school officials say they are working to reach out and help students falling behind so they don’t end up with failing grades that for high school seniors could prevent them from graduating.

But while many districts around the Bay Area like Alum Rock Union School District in San Jose have yet to complete progress reports, the experience in Sequoia and Mt. Diablo don’t appear to be outliers.

In Sonoma County, superintendents convened a special meeting last week after similar spikes — with 37{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of students across its 10 districts with high schools having at least one failing grade compared to 27{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} at the same time last year.

At Healdsburg Unified School District, the number of high school students with D and F grades at this point in the fall roughly doubled to 39{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} from 20{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} in a typical year, said Superintendent Chris Vanden Heuvel.

“I was alarmed,” Vanden Heuvel said. “I reached out to other superintendents and found they were encountering the same thing.”

At Santa Rosa City Schools, Superintendent Diann Kitamura said they are seeing 30{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} to 50{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} more “F” grades this year than at the same time last year.

California schools were forced into sudden closure and remote teaching in mid-March as the coronavirus pandemic grew rapidly and Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered residents to stay in their homes. Schools adopted policies of not grading students for the remainder of the year, because many lacked access to computers, internet connections and suitable study space at home.

State officials expected to reopen classrooms in the fall, but after a summer surge of cases and objections from teacher unions over safety, they ordered districts in most of the state that were seeing uncontrolled outbreaks to start the fall term online. But to counter concerns about learning loss from the spring, they insisted this term that schools take online attendance and grade assignments.

Parents and teachers generally agree the fall version of distance learning is better than it was in the spring. Even so, there’s widespread agreement that kids learn better in classrooms.

And the emergence of fall progress grades provides the first clear window into how kids’ education is suffering with remote learning, and is adding new urgency to the debate over reopening classrooms.

“It is massively affecting our kids,” said Sequoia board trustee Georgia Jack. “And this is just inexcusable.”

Educators and students say a big part of the problem with distance learning is that it’s harder for kids to focus on class when it’s a Zoom meeting on their screen at home than it is in the classroom, and that they aren’t getting as much instruction time in class as they did on campus.

Sathvik Nori, 17, of Atherton, the Sequoia district’s student board trustee, said that while the spike in failing grades was “definitely alarming,” it was “not entirely surprising.” He said the reduced online instructional time makes it harder for students to keep up in difficult subjects like math and science.

“If they don’t see their teacher as much, it’s harder to ask questions,” said Nori, a senior at Menlo-Atherton High School, adding that “in most of my classes, it’s pretty obvious 10{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of the class is not participating” online.

“It’s hard to stay focused when you’re just staring into a screen,” Nori said.

School officials and students said students throughout the district are having trouble, including those who had earned high marks before. But they said those from families with less money and poorer districts suffer more, exacerbating the achievement gap that has hampered students from disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Nori said he’s not worried so much for himself — his family can afford tutors — but for others whose families can’t.

The rise in failing grades has alarmed parents who feel school officials and teachers unions are dragging their feet on reopening classrooms, jeopardizing their kids’ futures while their peers at private schools return to class.

“The lack of urgency is close to criminal,” said Caroline Krauskopf, whose son is a senior at Sequoia’s Woodside High and whose daughter is in 8th grade.

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