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Almost 40% of ABSS middle & high school students failed at least one course during first fall grading period; parents press for return to in-classroom instruction

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Parents speak up for return to in-person, in-classroom instruction

Alamance-Burlington superintendent Dr. Bruce Benson recently presented school board members with figures showing that a combined total of nearly 40 percent of ABSS middle and high school students failed at least one course during the first nine-week grading period of the current 2020-21 school year.

The data revealed that 55.7 percent of middle school students and 34.2 percent of high school students had failed at least one class during the first nine-week grading period, which ended in October (see accompanying chart).

At the middle school level, the failure rate increased by 29.9 percentage points from a year ago, when 25.8 percent of ABSS middle school students had failed at least one class during the first nine weeks of the 2019-20 school year, based on the figures Benson presented at a recent-called special meeting that was held to discuss plans for returning to in-person instruction.

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At the high school level, the failure rate for the first nine weeks of the 2020-21 school year has increased by 9.8 percentage points from the previous 2019-20 school year, when 24.4 percent of ABSS high school students had failed at least one class during the first nine-week grading period.

Similar data showing the percentages of middle and high school students who failed one or more classes have not been presented to school board members during previous school years, according to ABSS chief accountability officer Amy Richardson.

Other North Carolina public school systems are reporting similar failure rates. Early last month, the Wilson County school system, east of Raleigh, reported that 46 percent of its students in grades three through 12 had failed a class during the first nine weeks, which was more than double the number from a year ago, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Cumberland County schools also reported across-the-board increases in failure rates for elementary, middle, and high school students. The sharpest increases in failure rates were at the middle school level, which went from 7 percent last year to 24.68 percent this year; and the high school level, which increased from 10.48 percent last year to 23.72 percent during the first nine weeks of this school year, The Fayetteville Observer reported Wednesday.

Neither Benson nor any of the seven school board members dove into the possible reasons for the increase in failing grades during the first nine weeks of the current school year.
However, some state education officials suggest that there may be a correlation between remote-only instruction and rising failure rates among students.

David Stegall, deputy superintendent of innovation at the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI), told the General Assembly’s K-12 education oversight committee last month that more students are likely to fail a grade this year than at any time in the past century. Approximately 19 percent of students enrolled in the state’s 115 public school systems aren’t participating in any classes, either online or in-person, he told the committee.

At the time, 36 percent of the state’s public school systems were providing online-only instruction, meaning students participate in classes remotely via a computer, Stegall said. (ABSS has made hard copies of lessons available to students who lack access to a computer or a stable internet connection, school officials say.)

ABSS parents continuing to complain about online instruction
Meanwhile, ABSS parents have repeatedly complained to school board members throughout the fall about the detrimental effects that they believe remote-only instruction will have on their children’s education.

“They wake up and get on the screen between 8 [and] 11 hours a day. It is a like job you hate and don’t get paid for and have to sit in isolation day in and day out; 12 and 13-year-olds are not designed to do that.”

– Parent joshua whitley of Graham

Joshua Whitley of Graham told school board members, during the public comment portion of their regular meeting last month, that his two middle school students had always made As and Bs until this year. “Now both are having failing grades and barely passing,” Whitley wrote in an email that he submitted to be read aloud into the record during the public comment period. “They have nothing to look forward to. They wake up and get on the screen between 8 [and] 11 hours a day. It is a like job you hate and don’t get paid for and have to sit in isolation day in and day out; 12 and 13-year-olds are not designed to do that. Social interactions for teenagers are not things parents can make up for. My children are having to teach themselves, just like so many other kids are having to do for a virus that really does not affect them at all.”

“It is absurd to think a child can benefit from remote learning in any comparable form to in-person education.”

– Parent Lucas Reid of Graham

Lucas Reid of Graham, who has an elementary school student and a high school student in ABSS schools, expressed similar frustrations in an email he submitted for the public comment portion of the school board’s latest monthly meeting. “These children are suffering through this remote learning, while sacrificing their education,” he wrote. “It is absurd to think a child can benefit from remote learning in any comparable form to in-person education. These children are our future, and their most critical years are being sacrificed for a virus with a very high survival rate. The cure for this pandemic cannot be worse than the virus itself, but so far has cost countless small business closures, crippled our economy, and now is cost our kids their education.”

“The private schools are successfully [implementing] a successful in-person environment.  I suggest you find out how they are doing this and implement it immediately.”

– Lezlee Rutchka of Graham

Lezlee Rutchka of Graham asserted in an email she submitted for the public comments portion of last month’s school board meeting that “by not allowing children to attend school in person,” school officials are exposing them to dangers far worse than COVID-19, such as mental health problems and child abuse. “Do you realize how many suicides have occurred/will occur due to social isolation and great frustration with online learning?” Rutchka wrote. “These children cannot bear this any longer.”

Rutchka wrote that she finds “it hard to believe that cyber-learning is giving children the building blocks and complete education that they need to progress to the next grade level.” She also offered a stern warning for any school board members who might vote against any plan to bring students back to school for in-person instruction. “I think you should be held responsible for any suicide attempts, child abuse, mental abuse, sexual abuse, and any other grave issues that occur…The private schools are successfully [implementing] a successful in-person environment. I suggest you find out how they are doing this and implement it immediately.”

“Staring at a computer 8 hours a day is not normal for children.”

– Parent Stasha gilley of elon

Stasha Gilley of Elon pointed to ongoing problems with Zoom, one of the teleconferencing systems that ABSS and other school systems use to provide online instruction. “Zoom is very inconsistent and not reliable,” Gilley wrote in an email she submitted for the public comment period last month. “If Zoom is functioning, there are students coming in late and the teacher has to start over to get that child caught up. Staring at a computer 8 hours a day is not normal for children. My daughter cannot stay focused and is constantly doing other things. Private schools have been in-person with masks on, with no major outbreaks. Please make the right decision for our children’s mental health.”

Other troubling figures
School board member Ryan Bowden – one of three new school board members elected in November and who joined the board last month – pointed during the special meeting to statistics that he said are just as troubling as the COVID-19 infection rates.

“Remote learning is not working for all and is possibly widening the disparities we claim to care about.” – school board member ryan bowden

“Our COVID numbers are rising in our community and across the state,” Bowden said two weeks ago. “But that’s not the only numbers that are rising at an alarming pace. Out of 23,000 children ages 11 to 17 that have been screened since March of this year, 83 percent of them screened positive for [being] at-risk for anxiety; 91 percent screen positive for [being] at-risk for depression. We see rising domestic violence cases; and sadly, we have heard of cases of suicide among our young people. We must be willing to find a balancing point that works for all. Remote learning is not working for all and is possibly widening the disparities we claim to care about.”

Pushback on plan to return to in-person instruction on February 1
“Why are we even considering a return to a modified plan A [in-person instruction only] or a modified plan B [with a hybrid of in-person and online instruction]?” school board member Patsy Simpson asked the superintendent during the special-called meeting two weeks ago.

“For those parents who wanted their children in school, I know you stated multiple times early on that 5 percent would be the matrix for doing so.” [Benson had told school board members last August that the school system’s administration would consider returning to in-person instruction once the countywide testing positivity rate declines to 5 percent or less.]

“At the time, when we were getting geared up to return to school,” Benson recalled for Simpson, “there were a lot of unknowns about what students would experience in a setting where there’s a potential spread of COVID. We’ve learned a lot. Clearly, there are models that are producing positive outcomes in school systems where students are able to return to in-person learning.

Benson cited a new study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that showed school-age children were more likely to contract COVID-19 if they had attended weddings, funerals, and social gatherings – not while attending school. Other information from the CDC and World Health Organization showed “very little evidence of spread in an academic setting,” the superintendent explained during the special meeting. “Guidance from the World Health Organization shows that the closing of schools should be a last resort,” he added.

The man who has become the public face of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. – Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases – urged education officials around the country in late November that schools should remain open “as much as possible,” CNN reported.

Meanwhile, ABSS has been approved to join a pilot program to conduct onsite “rapid antigen testing” for COVID-19, which will enable the school system’s staff to respond more quickly if an individual tests positive for the virus, Benson told school board members during the special meeting.

At the close of the special meeting, school board chairman Allison Gant and board member Wayne Beam joined Simpson in voting against a motion to return to in-person learning on February 1. The motion passed, with four school board members voting to bring students back to school for in-person instruction: Bowden; Sandy Ellington-Graves; vice chairman Tony Rose; and Donna Westbrooks.

School board members are expected to resume their discussion about returning to in-person instruction, especially in light of Simpson’s ongoing and strident objections, during their next regularly-scheduled work session on Tuesday afternoon.

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