RICHMOND, Va. -- School systems across Central Virginia and beyond have seen a significant increase in student failure rates during the 2020-21 school year.
“The vast majority of school divisions are seeing a high percentage of students that are failing two or more classes compared to last year,” Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) Assistant Superintendent Dr. Michael Bolling said.
Forty out of 132 school districts surveyed by the VDOE ranked failing students as the biggest issue when it comes to remote learning.
“What we know now, and what we're learning more is that there are some students who are being impacted negatively, by the situation that we're in," State Superintendent Dr. James Lane said. "We know that students that are learning in-person and getting a more traditional experience are able to do so safely."
Which was part of what prompted Virginia Governor Ralph Northam to issue “marching orders” Friday to superintendents across the Commonwealth.
“I expect every school division to make in-person learning options available in accordance with the guidance. They also need to plan for summer school options,” Governor Northam said.
All divisions must make those options available by March 15.
“Our children need to catch up to be ready for learning in the fall,” Northam added.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, CBS 6 requested failure data from seven area districts that compared the first quarter of this year to last.
Like 41 other divisions surveyed, Richmond Public Schools remained fully remote all year.
The already struggling school district that had 10% of kids failing two or more classes last year, more than doubled that number this year.
“I'm not surprised that we have high rates of children failing,” Richmond Public Schools parent and former teacher Mary Gresham said. “We have struggled and when I say we, I'm talking about parents, I'm talking about children, I'm talking about teachers. The last year has been a struggle, we were forced to do things that we had never done before in our lives."
Gresham, who taught for 34 years, has a senior, sophomore, and third-grader at home.
Two of her children, she said, have struggled with virtual instruction -- and they’re not alone.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the Richmond Public School system reported one in four, or more than five times as many elementary students, failed two or more classes in the first quarter of this school year compared to last year. The school system later said that figure incorrectly included 19.6% of kids that received an "N" or needs improvement on their report cards while the other 6.3% received failing grades.
One in seven RPS middle school students failed two or more classes in the first quarter of this school year -- a 50% jump.
A quarter of high school students are still failing as they were last year.
"We are committed to the success of every child and we will continue to put resources in place for our students, especially those who need additional support in the virtual learning environment," said Richmond Public Schools spokesperson Danielle Pierce.
“It takes a lot to do what, what teachers had to do,“ Gresham said. “While children may not have been successful for whatever reasons, it's not just because of the teacher. A lot of times, and I noticed to be a fact in Richmond, it has to do with resources at home as well. If you didn't have a laptop computer, if you don't have access to the internet, if you're hungry, and you know, you don't have access to food."
It's Not Just a Richmond Problem
Overall, students failing two or more classes have doubled from the first quarter last year in Henrico and Chesterfield counties, more than doubled in Powhatan and Amelia counties, and more than tripled in Louisa County.
Students in Chesterfield County and Henrico counties were briefly given the option to go hybrid in the first quarter of 2020, but most of the instruction was virtual.
One in eight middle school students failed two or more classes in the first quarter of 2020 compared to last year in Chesterfield County which is more than double.
One in six high school students did, which is almost double.
Elementary failure rates were virtually unchanged.
In Henrico County, roughly twice as many kids failed two or more classes compared to last year.
A little more at the elementary and middle school levels and just under at the high school level.
In Powhatan County, 80% of students attended school in person and 20% studied remotely in the first quarter.
For elementary students that consisted of five days a week, in-person learning.
Secondary students had a hybrid schedule.
Four times as many elementary and middle school students failed two or more classes in the first quarter this year compared to last year in the county and more than twice as many high school students did.
Although the elementary totals were minimal.
Amelia County Public Schools operated on a hybrid schedule with elementary students attending in person four days each week with Wednesday as a virtual day for all students.
Middle school and high school students attend two days each week, either Monday/Tuesday or Thursday/Friday.
Sixty-one percent of students attended the in-person hybrid schedule the first quarter and 39% of students were completely virtual.
Thirty-nine percent fewer elementary students failed classes in the county in the first quarter this year compared to last. However, almost seven times as many middle schoolers and almost three times as many high school students did.
Sixty-six percent of Louisa County Public School students chose a hybrid schedule in the first quarter and 34 % were virtual.
Students failed two or more classes in the county at a rate of almost four times compared to last year with elementary students struggling the most at a failure rate of almost six times that of last year.
Of the districts surveyed by the Department of Education, close to two dozen reported a more than 30% increase in middle and high school students failing two or more classes this year compared to last.
“The data is clear that, students are facing significant mental health issues, students are facing academic learning loss,” Dr. Lane said. “As we've been discussing today and our guidance that was released earlier this month, details that when strong mitigation strategies are in place, when you address the needs of your community, when you assess school impact side by side with community transmission, that and we've created a matrix for all this to help school divisions make their decisions, but schools have been able to open quite safely, even in the context of higher and some of the highest transmissions in the community. In fact, there have been few outbreaks in our schools.”
Meanwhile in Hanover
Hanover County Schools is among 15 divisions surveyed that offered in-person instruction throughout the year.
Sixty percent of students attended in-person in the first quarter and 40% studied remotely.
It’s also the only district in our area that hasn’t seen an overall increase in failure rates.
As a district, 26% fewer kids failed two or more classes in the county in the first quarter.
Ten percent less in middle school and 35% in high school.
High school students transitioned to a 4x4 block schedule this year.
Elementary students failing two or more classes in 2020 compared to last year rose slightly.
Mari Dyer’s daughter began her freshman year in-person at Atlee High School in 2020.
A younger daughter, who lives with Type One Diabetes, studied remotely at Mechanicsville Elementary.
“Comparing the face to face versus a virtual learning environment, without a doubt, the challenges have been much greater for the online virtual environment,” said Dyer.
Dyer, however, chose to keep both girls home in the second quarter to mitigate further risks.
“It seems ridiculous that there are students gathering in the school building to wrestle for winter sports," Dyer said. “How do we explain to our kids that they need to distance you know, at least three feet and that's pounded into them all school day, but then when the bell rings, and they can go into a locker room, and then go out on a mat and wrestle, or, you know, in a herd around a basketball?”
She said she feared that could delay kids like hers from returning to the classroom. A place she said they need to be.
“The longer that goes on, the longer it's going to be before our other children who are immunocompromised, or their family members, and that's why they're online before they can safely return to the school buildings,” said Dyer.
Impact on Young Learners
Data shows young learners need to make that return first.
“The PALS data suggested that our earlier learners -- Kindergarteners and first graders -- by percentage are meeting the benchmark less often this year than then before COVID and so that brings us great concern,” said Dr. Lane. “It's really important in our guidance that the youngest learners come back first. We have thought that this data was true, but now it's confirmed even with our own Virginia data. So it's extremely important that we're providing remedial opportunities and extra opportunities in-person opportunities for our youngest learners at this time."
Dr. Lane said it was also important that everyone received a little extra leniency at this time.
“I think in this environment, the main thing to focus on is what are students learning? And, how do we know what they're learning? I would defocus on whether this assignment was in exactly on this day, at this moment, I think that we've just got to give a lot of people grace during this time,” said Dr. Lane.
“At the end of the day, we need to look at the human side of this and our children already have obstacles,” Gresham added. “So, add on, maybe losing a loved one due to COVID, add on, maybe losing resources in your home, due to COVID. Add those things online. And at this point, before we worry about what the data says, we have got to make sure that we offer grace for our children, for our teachers, you know, for our school division period."
Depend on CBS 6 News and WTVR.com for exclusive Problem Solvers Investigations from our award-winning team of investigative journalists. If you have a story idea, email our team at ProblemSolvers@wtvr.com.or click here to submit a tip.
Find unique, award-winning stories every day on CBS 6 News: