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CMS And Gaston Schools See F's Double During Pandemic

Bess Elementary students go to one of three entrances, based on their grade level. Red spots mark six-foot distances.
Ann Doss Helms
Bess Elementary students report for in-person classes in Gaston County Schools.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Gaston County schools say the percentage of students earning F's during first quarter has doubled over the previous year.

Those reports echo what's being heard across the country: More students are failing their classes as the coronavirus upends in-person instruction.

CMS students spent the first quarter of this year learning from home. The district says 14% of them got at least one failing grade, compared with about 7% a year earlier. Elementary and K-8 schools returned to in-person rotations second quarter, but those grades aren’t in yet.

Gaston County opened with in-person rotations, where students spend two days a week in class and learn remotely the other three. Gaston reports about 11% had at least one F in fall of 2019, and that rose to almost 23% this year.

So, the failing grades don’t say much about which model serves students better. Neither district made anyone available to talk further about the struggling students. Some other nearby districts didn’t respond to WFAE’s question or said they won’t report on grades until January.

Austin Schroth, a high school math teacher at Lake Norman Charter School in Huntersville, says the grades alone don’t tell the story.

He did give a handful of F’s first quarter when students were learning remotely. "And I hated it," Schroth said. "With giving the F, those were kids who had shut down."

Trying To Provide Alternatives

Schroth says he also had students who did just fine learning from home. But between the two extremes were a lot of teens who lacked the motivation or organization skills to thrive in that environment. He says he and other teachers gave credit for effort and went out of their way to help students make up work. They might have failed in a typical year, but if they made an effort they could pass this year.

"So to say the grades have dipped? I would feel more comfortable to say the learning has dipped," he said Monday.

Something similar seems to be happening in CMS. A memo about the first-quarter grades says CMS stopped giving any grades below 50%, reduced penalties for late work and created second-quarter opportunities for students to bring up first-quarter grades.

During second quarter, Lake Norman Charter students started attending school in person two days a week. The other three they learned from home -- not with a teacher on Zoom, but using online lessons at their own pace.

Schroth says the results were mixed. His older, more advanced students generally did better under the hybrid model. So did the kids who were failing first quarter -- for them, two days with a teacher was better than nothing.

But some of his freshmen who had done OK with all-remote the quarter before didn’t seem to benefit from the switch.

"I think the hybrid might be not as good for them," he said. "I saw grades were lower with the hybrid learning because they didn’t get that daily interaction with their teacher."

In other words, for some students, five consistent days of talking to a teacher online worked better than two days face-to-face.

Paris Wicklin, a guidance counselor at Lincoln Charter School, says there’s a perception that today’s teens are digital natives who can thrive with computer connections. But she says many of her 11th and 12th graders are anxious, disorganized and unmotivated when they can’t see their friends and teachers face to face. When their grades fall, she says, some of them give up.

Wicklin says some of them seem to think, "All right, if I get so far behind, well, I don’t even need to catch up.”

She says Lincoln Charter has a list of students with at least one F, and faculty have been connecting to see how they can help.

Home Support Is Vital

The CMS plan includes regular conferences with parents of students who are failing. Counselors there offer to help parents use the digital platforms their children work on.

At Lake Norman Charter, Schroth says the difference between success and failure is often an adult at home who can step in -- a task some families find overwhelming as COVID-19 puts strains on their lives, too.

"This year more than ever, it really took the home support -- from the parents or maybe an older brother or sister, uncles, you know, anybody that was at home to help the kids with their school work," he said.

Schroth says everything is harder during the pandemic -- for kids, teachers and parents. But he suggests people don’t get too worked up about grades. The students are still learning, he says, and there are life lessons that don’t show up on report cards.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.