Students in Virginia’s largest school district suffering substantial academic decline during online learning

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Students in Virginia’s largest public school district are failing at a much higher rate in an online learning environment as compared to in-person instruction, new data shows.

A study by the Fairfax County Public Schools found that while all student demographics are affected, those with learning disabilities and English-language learners are having the toughest time, the Washington Post reported.

As compared to last year, when in-person classes were still the norm ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic that led to widespread school closures by the spring, the percentage of F’s given to middle school and high school students has climbed from 6 percent of all grades to 11 percent.

Overall, that’s an 83 percent spike in failing grades from 2019 to 2020.

Breaking those numbers down further, the school district found that middle school students experienced a 300-percent increase in F’s compared to high school students, who earned a 50 percent increase.

Students with disabilities saw F’s increase by 111 percent, accounting for almost one-fifth of all grades earned. Among kids who speak English as a second language, their F’s increased 106 percent to account for some 35 percent of those grades.

“The pattern was pervasive across all student groups, grade levels, and content areas,” the Fairfax study, published online, noted. “The trend of more failing marks is concerning across the board but is especially concerning for the groups that showed the biggest unpredicted increases … namely our English learner students and students with disabilities.”

In a statement on the study’s results, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) Superintendent Scott Brabrand said the district was working as fast as possible to reverse the downward trend.

He said that students who were doing well before being relegated to online learning are still performing at a high level, while others “who previously struggled in school … continue to do so.”

“We are working on identifying these students by name and by need and are working on specific interventions to support them right now and as we phase back in person,” Brabrand added.

The district has already implemented some measures to help mitigate the damage, to include extending the first-quarter grading period and instituting “catch-up days” for strugglers.

The study, conducted by the FCPS Office of Research and Strategic Improvement, compared overall grades earned during the first quarter of the 2019 and 2020 academic years.

The objective of the study was to look into “concerns locally and at the state and national level that student performance may be lower … when virtual instruction is prevalent.”

Education experts have been warning for months that keeping kids out of schools and relegating them to online instruction only will have enduring academic consequences.

“It is very important to get children back to school for the unintended negative consequences that occur when we keep them out of school,” lead immunologist and Coronavirus Task Force member Dr. Anthony Fauci told a congressional panel in July.

But school districts have been getting pushback from an unlikely source — teachers themselves, who say they are concerned about students spreading the virus to them.

In Iowa in July, for instance, teachers sent mock obituaries to Gov. Kim Richards (R) in response to plans to allow public schools to reopen for the coming academic year.

Last month, Brown University economist Emily Oster wrote in an op-ed for The Atlantic that schools have not turned into COVID super-spreader sites as officials feared.

“It’s now October,” Oster wrote. “We are starting to get an evidence-based picture of how school reopenings and remote learning are going (those photos of hallways don’t count), and the evidence is pointing in one direction. Schools do not, in fact, appear to be major spreaders of COVID-19.”

Jon Dougherty

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