In remote and hybrid school models, Summit County schools seeing more students failing

Jennifer Pignolet
Akron Beacon Journal
An Akron Public Schools student logs online for class in October. More students earned a failing grade in the first quarter, but the increase is not unique to Akron.

From her office at home, Ellet CLC intervention specialist Dawn Durbin spends much of the school day texting students to turn in their work, talk to their teacher or engage in class. 

In a normal year, the techniques she would use to keep her 41 assigned students on track, including pulling a student aside for a conversation or supervising them as they completed the work, aren't at her disposal in remote learning. At least, not in the same way. 

Instead, she is at the mercy of the limits of technology to connect with her students to motivate them. It's harder, she said, but can still be successful. 

"I don't want my kids to fail, and I'm going to push as hard as I can," Durbin said. 

But a larger number of students are failing, in Akron Public Schools and other districts in the county, the state and the country. Some may see the increased failure rates as an acceptable trade-off to risking the health of staff and students during a pandemic, especially one that has hit minority communities, like the ones served by Akron schools, the hardest. But the numbers have still raised concern about the impact failing grades will have on students' academic momentum, chances at graduation and mental health.

In Akron, across all grade levels that receive letter grades, 36% of students earned at least one failing grade on their first-quarter report card this year, up from 26.8% last year. Out of more than 17,000 students, that means 1,545 more students earned at least one failing grade this year than last year.

In English and language arts classes, 17% of students earned a failing grade, up from 10% last year. In math, 20% of students earned a failing grade, up from 12% last year.

"This should be an alarm for us," Assistant Superintendent Ellen McWilliams-Woods told the school board  last week. 

Students still have until Jan. 16 to improve their grades by the end of the semester, and it is the grade they earn then that determines whether they earn credit for that class. About a quarter of students are also still earning A's in math and English, consistent with last year, which is an encouraging sign. Teachers have also anecdotally reported some students who previously struggled in classrooms are thriving online. 

Other districts struggling

But the higher number of failing grades shows the realities of an education during a pandemic, even for a district like Akron that has largely tackled internet connectivity issues, offered flexibility on turning in assignments and maintained attendance numbers nearly identical to what they were in bricks-and-mortar classrooms last year. 

Akron isn't alone in this struggle. Columbus City Schools reported last week 36% of all grades issued in the first quarter were F's, up from 16% the year before. Akron reported its data by individual subjects, but no subject had a failure rate higher than 22%, showing that while Akron students are struggling more than they were previously, the district is ahead of some of its large urban peers.

Columbus has also been remote since March, with the exception of three weeks last month when career education students were able to return to buildings. 

But even suburban school districts that offered some in-person classes this year have seen students' grades drop. 

Nordonia Hills, which operated mostly in a hybrid fashion this fall, allowing students to come to school two days a week, has seen an overall drop in the average grade-point average of high school students and an increased numbers of failing grades. 

Last year, after first quarter, the 1,200-student school had 84 students who received a failing grade, with a total of 113 F's issued. 

This year, 159 students earned at least one failing grade, with a total of 228 failing grades issued, nearly double the previous year's total. 

"I think that one can speculate that the biggest significant change has been going to hybrid learning or remote learning," Superintendent Joe Clark said. 

Akron plan in place

But still, Akron hopes bringing its struggling students into buildings for limited one-on-one or small-group supports or hands-on career classes, a plan dubbed "Remote Plus," will make a difference in the number of failing grades. 

"We have to figure out a way that as soon as we're safe to come in for Remote Plus, that we can provide that service," McWilliams-Woods said. 

It could also boost students' emotional well-being, she said, and interaction with peers and teachers could increase motivation to be more engaged in school overall. 

The district was slated to begin Remote Plus Nov. 30, with teachers identifying students in need of interventions in the weeks before that, but rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in Summit County and Ohio pushed that plan off until at least the start of the spring semester. 

Although there is concern for all struggling students, McWilliams-Woods said she is particularly worried about this year's seniors, who are failing math, English and their career technical courses at higher rates than normal.

"The seniors are the students I'm most concerned about, because there isn't another year to catch up," she said. "This is where, if we're not keeping pace, and if we're not passing our course, that means we're not graduating from high school, most likely."

Broken down by race, black students had a slightly lower increase in failing grades than their white peers, in contrast to what many districts across the country have seen. 

Students who are English language learners, however, saw the biggest increases in failing grades across math and English, and in career technical courses, the percentage of grades that were failing jumped from 10% to 31%.

Students who have an individualized education plan, which accounts for gifted students and those with other special needs, saw smaller increases in failure rates than their peers. In language arts, the percentage of grades that were failing went up only just shy of 3 percentage points, from 10.8% to 13.8%. 

Across all grades and demographics, students who earned A's had an average attendance rate of 97%, although attendance is counted when a student logs in online for class or turns in work. Students who received a failing grade had an average attendance of just under 80%. 

On average, however, attendance has been consistent with students logging into their classes — a not insignificant hurdle — but the problem has been getting students to complete their work, McWilliams-Woods said. Teachers have allowed for flexibility in turning in assignments, she said, to account for students who may have struggles at home to still be able to succeed. 

"Even with that flexibility, we still are seeing issues with work completion and getting that final piece in," she said. 

The district is not waiting for Remote Plus to be an option before intervening and providing students with extra help or looping in parents, McWilliams-Woods said. But the reality is, being fully remote is an obstacle that is challenging to overcome. 

Risk of coronavirus

Across the county, Cuyahoga Falls also reported seeing an increased number of students with failing grades, but the district said it would not have official data to report until the end of the fall semester. About a third of the district's students opted to be fully remote for the semester. The rest of the population has gone back and forth from fully remote to a hybrid in-person and at-home model. 

Revere Local Schools opted to allow students to come to school five days a week, and as a result has seen 85% of its student body in person every day. The district has not seen an increase in failure rates, spokeswoman Jennifer Reece said in an email. The biggest struggle has been in younger grades with students who are fully remote and don't have parents who are able to monitor their progress throughout the day, she said.

The health impacts of the decisions to allow students to come to school more often or keep them mostly at home are not yet clear, and may never be. Revere is two-thirds the size of Cuyahoga Falls but has reported the same number of cases of COVID-19 in its staff, and more student cases.

But county health officials have said actions outside of classrooms, which are often less regulated with mask wearing and social distancing, are more to blame for the spread of COVID-19 in students and staff. 

Akron's school board has still been averse to the risk of bringing students back into buildings, but has acknowledged the stress that has put on students and families. 

That's showing in the first-quarter academic data, board member Lisa Mansfield said, and in interim grades for the second quarter, which don't show any signs of students improving their grades now that they are more adjusted to an online format. 

What the data shows, Mansfield said, is exactly what board members are hearing from their constituents about the ups and downs of online learning. 

"For students this is working for, it's really, really working," she said. "And for the ones that it's not, it's really, really not."

Contact education reporter Jennifer Pignolet at jpignolet@thebeaconjournal.com, at 330-996-3216 or on Twitter @JenPignolet.