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All-remote learning is failing many students all across the country: "These children are struggling"

American students struggling amid pandemic
How American students are missing the mark during the pandemic 04:43

In our series "School Matters," we're looking at how the pandemic is taking a toll on schoolchildren and their grades.

Students in about 40 percent of school districts across the country haven't seen the inside of a classroom in more than eight months – and their grades tell a sad story.

New academic performance numbers suggest the disruption to in-person education is taking a heavy toll on many students.

Earlishia Oats is a single mom of four children in East Tampa, Florida. She chose all-remote learning to protect the health of her oldest son, who suffers from epilepsy. "When he gets sick, it's a whole other level," she said.

But her 15-year-old daughter, who has never had a failing grade in the past, is now struggling. "She made a D the last time on AP World History," Oats said, "and she was freaking out. That has never happened before."

Correspondent Meg Oliver asked, "How is that affecting you?"

"It is stressing me out as well, because my daughter has never struggled," Oats said. "And to have her feel like she's being defeated is a problem."

It's a problem happening to students around the country.

In Houston, one of the largest school districts in the nation, the number of students with failing grades is exploding. During the fall of this year, 42 percent of students received one or more Fs in the first grading period, which was 100 percent virtual. Last year, only 26 percent fell into that category.

Christina Quintero has two children in Houston's school district. "These children are struggling to read, struggling to do math," she said.

Quintero said her first-grade daughter feels defeated.

Oliver asked, "Is she getting down on herself?"

"Oh, she's very critical," Quintero  said. "Very critical in her academic, because she just wants to do better, and she wants to be able to show that to her teacher and be proud of herself."

Dan Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, has served as a superintendent for nearly 30 years.

"We know that there has been a significant loss of learning, but I'll tell you, we're less concerned about that than we are about the social and emotional factors," Domenech said. "We're seeing an increase in the stress that students are feeling, the emotional impact that this is having on them. We're carefully tracking suicide rates, which is a major factor. So, we are more concerned right now about the emotional well-being of our students than we are about their academic loss."

Numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show mental health-related emergency room visits between March and October of this year increased nearly 28 percent for children ages 5 to 17, compared to the same period in 2019.

And grades in North Carolina paint a bleak picture as well. In Wilson County, 46 percent of students in grades 3-12 failed a class this fall while learning virtually. That is more than double from the same period last year.  

In Cleveland, where 42 percent of the students live below the poverty line, superintendent Eric Gordon said 20 percent of Cleveland Metro students had "incompletes" in the first marking period.  

"We made an early decision to award incompletes to students who are trying to make progress who weren't where they were supposed to be, because it sends a signal to finish, as opposed to an F," he said.

Oliver asked, "Is it fair to have traditional grading in all-remote learning?"

"By using an ABC or incomplete strategy, we're actually moving towards, 'Does the student know what we want them to know before we move on, or do they need to finish that learning?'" Gordon replied. "So, I think it's just another opportunity for us to question our past strategies and think about how to make a better system when we come out of this pandemic."

If things don't improve for Earlishia Oats' daughter in Florida, she will send her back to class for in-person – and send her son to live with her mother.

"The last time my son had a seizure, he almost didn't make it," said Oats. "So, it's more life-or-death for him, because the [COVID] numbers in Hillsborough County are rising, So, for safety, that's one of the options that we've been weighing."

As parents face these difficult decisions, Cleveland Metro School District superintendent Eric Gordon said we're unfairly measuring students in a time that none of us could have imagined. They're already discussing how to close the gap post-pandemic, whether it involves summer school, weekend camps, or evening classes.

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