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More Delaware students than ever are failing because of COVID-19 pandemic

Natalia Alamdari
Delaware News Journal

Correction: Originally, Tatiana Poladko's name was misspelled. The story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling.

It began with a missed assignment and then turned into dismal test performance. 

Tatiana Poladko kept watching the grades go down. It didn’t take long until her students were officially failing. 

Among the high school seniors she advises, students who were once thriving and performing well in the classroom were suddenly at risk of failing one or more classes. 

Since the school year started in September, teachers have watched student grades slip drastically, resulting in failure rates unseen before the pandemic. Report cards from the first marking period reveal an increase in failing grades across Delaware, according to teachers from several school districts interviewed for this story.

“A kid who is making zeros is not learning,” said Poladko, co-founder of the nonprofit TeenSHARP. “What do you think the rest of the year is going to look like?”

For most students, the dip in performance is a product of the COVID-19 pandemic and virtual learning. The virtual start was a blow to student attendance in districts across the state. Late assignments piled up through the first marking period, if they got turned in at all. And for students struggling to learn through a screen, test scores dropped. 

School districts have slowly expanded to bring more students into the classroom — and have seen attendance and grades improve. Gov. John Carney has urged schools to remain in hybrid learning when possible, repeatedly saying that getting students back into buildings is a priority. 

Schools are trying to juggle in-person academics with health and safety and are already struggling to keep doors open as COVID-19 cases rise across the state.

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With more and more districts switching back to virtual learning for the winter months, educators wonder, is there hope to get kids back on track this year? Or will the unpredictable back-and-forth of virtual and hybrid learning leave some students behind all school year? 

“In classes like math and science, work that has not been submitted and failed tests means that the kid hasn’t learned anything since the beginning of the year,” Poladko said. “It’s highly consequential. If students are failing, they’re at risk of not graduating high school, but they’re also at risk of not securing the next chapter for themselves.”

Kindergarten teacher Yuronda Adams cleans her desk as she preps for the hybrid opening of school next week Wednesday, September 2, 2020.

The state Department of Education does not track failure rates throughout the year. That information is tracked at the district level. Some students have acclimated this year, finding that learning from home includes fewer distractions than sitting in the classroom, teachers said. 

But teachers across the state report a drastic increase in the number of students who are failing. 

At Sussex Central High School in Indian River, Principal Bradley Layfield said the failure rate is larger than he’s ever seen in his 10 years as an administrator. 

“We’ve got kids who’ve been trying to catch up,” Layfield said. “We’ve got accessibility issues. Folks may have the internet, but it’s spotty and there’s not much bandwidth and the kids can’t attend live Zooms because it crashes their computer or freezes up.” 

At Red Clay’s Thomas McKean High School, failure rates for the first marking period were nearly double that of last year, increasing from 20% to 42% of students, administrators told teachers in an email shared with Delaware Online/The News Journal by an unnamed McKean teacher. 

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The school saw more parent-teacher conference requests this year than ever before, which administrators called “an indicator that families are concerned [about] students who typically perform better but have struggled during the pandemic.” 

Seeing student performance has made some parents angry, feeling like schools didn’t inform students early enough or offer appropriate supports. 

“The blame goes to the pandemic,” McKean Principal Brian Mattix told teachers in the email. “Nobody has experienced this type of scenario for the past 100 years. So we all need to remind ourselves of that point.” 

In response to the doubled failure rate, the school is adjusting its grading policy for the upcoming marking period — the lowest percentage a student can earn on any assignment is a 50, rather than a zero.  

“The failure rate tells us that in spite of our best efforts that we still need to do more to connect and engage our students (mostly our remote students),” Mattix wrote.

The situation at McKean reflects a trend in Delaware and across the country. 

From the start of the year, English teacher Kimberly Stock noticed students who were not consistently attending Zoom classes. If they did show up, they weren’t always participating, the McKean teacher said. 

Kimberly Stock

“I can’t go to their house and check and see what they’re doing,” Stock said. “To be honest, a lot of our students have other responsibilities. They’re watching siblings at home or they’re working. Every teacher knows at least a few students who have taken on full-time jobs to support their families right now.” 

Throughout the school year, she’s tried offering extra support to her students, even holding a five-hour Zoom session with a student to help them through a backlog of assignments.

Coaches and athletic departments have attempted to do the same, said Matt Carre, athletic director at McKean. 

In a normal year, Carre said, coaches will sometimes cancel practices and, instead, take athletes to the library for study hall sessions. But with Red Clay being remote for the first marking period, that wasn’t an option until mid-October. 

“One study hall when you’re struggling all semester isn’t significant enough of an intervention to change things,” Carre said. “It’s hard to support kids on Zoom.” 

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When schools suddenly closed in March, districts rushed to make grading accommodations. At most schools, the final marking period was thrown out. Instead, students could complete work to boost their scores from the previous report card. 

But the call to return to schools in the fall came with a second rallying cry: a return to academic rigor and pre-pandemic grading policies. 

As the year goes on, teachers and administrators have started rethinking that, taking student mental health and motivation into consideration. Some schools are allowing students to complete assignments from the first marking period, but policies vary by building and by teacher. 

“Teachers need to have standards, but we also need to realize it’s OK if this year isn’t going to look like last year or the year before,” Stock said. “These times are just not normal.”

Students walk in the hall in between classes Tuesday, September 8, 2020, at Seaford High School.

Carre worries that holding students to the same pre-pandemic standards will widen an already existing achievement gap. Normally, sports motivate students who would otherwise be failing a class. 

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But as more teams cancel games due to the spread of the coronavirus, he’s worried that becoming ineligible will just make students shut down even more, putting them at risk of failing classes and not graduating. 

“We serve that population of students that come from a lower economic background,” Carre said. “And that’s where the achievement gap already existed. You can imagine then, the impacts of this are going to affect them more than other students.”

The grades from this one marking period can not only derail an entire year, Poladko said, but a student’s trajectory moving forward. Poor grades can prevent students from getting into advanced courses in the future and make getting into competitive colleges more difficult. 

“I’m extremely scared about the confidence and mental doubt that this is going to be seeding in the students, seeing how many kids who have received Fs whose love for school is not yet established,” Poladko said. “With this generation of pandemic students, how many of them are going to be able to push back and actually embrace learning? And not frame their attitude toward learning based on their experience this year?”

Brad Myers contributed to this report. 

Natalia Alamdari covers education for The News Journal. Contact her at nalamdari@delawareonline.com or (302) 324-2312.