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Lynchburg-area school divisions grapple with learning loss, increase in failing grades amid pandemic
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Lynchburg-area school divisions grapple with learning loss, increase in failing grades amid pandemic

School divisions across the nation are seeing an increase in failure rates as remote learning has increased during the coronavirus pandemic, and those in the Lynchburg area are no exception.

Given that few students are receiving full-time in-person instruction and a number of students across the commonwealth have yet to step foot into a classroom this year, school officials in the Lynchburg area were not surprised to see an increase in failing grades when compared to last year.

“One thing to keep in mind is that there can be no comparison between 2019-20 and 2020-21,” Clayton Stanley, assistant superintendent for instruction in Campbell County Public Schools, said in a statement to The News & Advance. “We started 2019 under normal school conditions where students attended school five days a week, all day, receiving face-to-face instruction. The 2020 school year started amid a global pandemic.”

In almost every division, school officials repeatedly pointed to lack of participation, or students not logging in, as a reason for falling grades. The reasons for that are as varied as the divisions and the students they serve. All divisions have remediation plans in place to help those whose grades are falling from needing to repeat classes or a grade level.

According to The News & Advance analysis of grade distribution data obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, failing grades are up nearly 500% from last year at some area schools. Each school division gathers and analyzes its grade distribution data differently, and some divisions did not provide data for all grade levels, so this data cannot be directly compared across school divisions.

Here’s what trends Lynchburg City Schools and public schools in the counties of Bedford, Campbell, Amherst and Nelson are seeing and how they plan to address learning loss.

Lynchburg City Schools

Lynchburg City Schools saw a 119.5% increase in the total number of Ds and Fs assigned to middle and high schoolers in the first quarter of this school year when compared to the first quarter of the 2019 school year. The division did not include elementary grades in its analysis.

Crystal Edwards file

Lynchburg City Schools Superintendent Crystal Edwards listens during a community program Oct. 22. Edwards says educators are concerned about learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A total of 4,605 Ds and Fs were assigned in LCS middle and high schools in the first quarter of the 2019 school year. In the same term in the current school year, that number rose to 10,110.

The amount of Ds and Fs among high school juniors in the division increased more than 116% from the first quarter of the 2019 school year to the first quarter of this year. In middle school grades, 1,711 Ds and Fs were assigned in the first quarter of the 2019 school year, and 4,527 were assigned to middle school students during the first quarter of this year — an almost 165% increase.

LCS Superintendent Crystal Edwards addressed the increase in failing grades at the Jan. 12 school board meeting.

“It’s everywhere,” Edwards said. “Educators are concerned everywhere about learning loss.”

Amy Pugh, deputy superintendent for LCS, said the division is not seeing A students slip to Fs — mostly it’s seeing students who already were struggling to maintain Cs and Ds slip into that D and F range. Edwards added the division is equally concerned about A students who are now earning Cs.

Pugh said many students who are receiving Ds and Fs are receiving those marks due to incomplete work and not because they complete an assignment and get the answers wrong.

Lynchburg City Schools has been offering remote or hybrid learning since October. Students in the hybrid model are broken into cohorts and each cohort attends school in-person two days a week. Mondays are remote-learning days for all students.

Pugh said the division is working with students on a case-by-case basis to address failing grades and help with recovery. College students from Randolph College and Longwood University already are working in virtual tutoring sessions with students whose grades are slipping, Pugh said.

Other interventions and supports already are in place at each school as well. Pugh said many schools in the division have implemented a “power hour” — an hourlong, afterschool program where students are receiving some intensive support with academics, social and emotional health, or technology. Pugh added some schools also are working to bring students into school buildings on Mondays for additional support.

Campbell County Public Schools

In the first quarter of the current school year, Campbell County Public Schools saw a 283% increase in Fs assigned when compared to the first quarter of the 2019 school year. In the first quarter of the 2019 school year, the division assigned 1,050 Fs. In the first quarter of 2020, the number of Fs assigned grew to 4,022.

Students in the division have been participating in a mix of hybrid and remote learning since the beginning of the school year.

At the Campbell County Online Learning Academy — the division’s remote-only learning option — 314 Fs were assigned during the first quarter of the school year, all of which were assigned in grades one through five with 112 Fs in language arts, 126 in math and 76 in science.

Stanley said grades are only one way the division measures student achievement. Student growth and achievement also are measured through teacher feedback and standardized testing, as well as other assessments, he said.

“At this point it appears that our students are progressing; however, they are not progressing as fast as they have in the past during normal conditions,” Stanley said.

Stanley said much of student grades are a reflection of work completion, which he said the division is seeing less of this year. Stanley added the division is planning an extended summer school to help students complete coursework and to address learning loss.

“Our recovery plan will continue into next year and subsequent years as the impact of COVID-19 on our students will have to be addressed strategically over a long period of time,” he said.

Amherst County Public Schools

Rob Arnold file

In this Dec. 14, 2020, file photo, Amherst County Public Schools Superintendent Rob Arnold (from left), Sen. Mark Peake, Principal Derek Adam and Del. Ronnie Campbell speak during a tour of Central Elementary School in Amherst County.

Amherst County Public Schools saw a 72% increase in Fs, from 556 in the first quarter of the 2019 school year to 960 Fs in the first quarter of this year. Amherst County has been offering a mix of hybrid and remote learning this year.

High schoolers in Amherst County Public Schools earned 176 more Fs during the first quarter of this year than the first quarter of the 2019 school year — a 70% increase from 251 Fs in the first quarter of the 2019 school year to 427 Fs during the first quarter of the current school year.

Rob Arnold, superintendent in Amherst County Public Schools, said the division is working to get teachers and staff vaccinated so more students can get back into classrooms for in-person instruction.

“Teachers are important and if kids aren’t with teachers, there’s going to be some setbacks,” Arnold said. “So we’re working really hard to get our kids back in schools safely.”

In addition to arranging home visits for students who had disengaged with the schools, Arnold said the division also spent time looking at how to equitably assess student progress and fairly grade students who hadn’t stepped into a classroom. Arnold said structurally the division also is working to extend deadlines for assignments in order to give students who may not have strong supports at home more time to complete their work.

Arnold added the division also is planning for an extended summer school to help address learning needs.

Nelson County Public Schools

Nelson County Public Schools has been operating in a remote-only model since the beginning of the school year, with plans to begin phasing students back into the classroom for some in-person instruction Monday.

Failing grades in the first quarter at the division’s middle and high school increased 323% and 300%, respectively, from the last school year to this year.

During the first quarter of the 2019 school year, 130 Fs were assigned at Nelson County Middle School. That number rose by 420 to 550 for the first quarter of this school year. The middle school also saw a 46% increase in Ds assigned, with 158 Ds assigned in the first quarter of the 2019 school year and 231 Ds assigned in the first quarter of the current school year.

Nelson County High School saw a slight decrease in Ds assigned during the first quarter of this year — down 2% from 151 in the first quarter of 2019 to 148 in the first quarter of 2020. But, the school assigned three times as many Fs during the first quarter of this year — 524 compared to 131 in the first quarter of the 2019 school year.

At the division’s elementary schools, the number of Fs assigned increased more than 400%. At Rockfish River Elementary School, 20 Fs were assigned during the first quarter of 2019, and 105 during the first quarter of 2020 — an increase of 425%. At Tye River Elementary School, 26 Fs were assigned during the first quarter of 2019, and 151 during the first quarter of 2020 — an increase of 480%.

In the first quarter of the 2019-21 school year, 27% of students in kindergarten through third grade performed below benchmarks in reading. This year, that number has risen to nearly 50% of students in those same grades.

Nelson County Public Schools Superintendent Martha Eagle said at a recent school board meeting one of the largest barriers to learning was reliable access to the internet.

She added students without reliable internet access are twice as likely to receive failing grades at the elementary level.

“As we know, internet access and consistency to internet access is a challenge for many families and many students — not all — but it’s only one of the many challenges and many barriers out there,” Eagle said.

In addition to phasing students back to school for in-person instruction, Nelson County Public Schools has been tutoring students, both in person and virtually, who have been struggling to learn this year.

Bedford County Public Schools

Grade distribution data sent to school board members and obtained by The News & Advance shows more students are receiving failing grades in many classes across the division.

For example, 5% of students who took earth science at Liberty High School received Fs for the first quarter of the 2019 school year. During the first quarter of the current school year, 23% of students received an F in the same course.

No students were failing advanced English 12 at Liberty High School during the first quarter of the 2019 school year. During the first quarter of the current school year, 22% of students enrolled in the course received an F.

At Jefferson Forest High School, the percent of students who received an F in algebra increased from 8% during the first quarter of the 2019 school year to 32% during the first quarter of the current school year.

At Staunton River High School, none of the students enrolled in AP Statistics were failing during the first quarter of the 2019 school year. During the first quarter of the current school year, 33% of students enrolled in the course received an F.

Karen Woodford, chief learning officer for BCPS, said one bright spot in the data are the results from Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS) assessments for students in grades one through three.

In fall 2020, 77% of students across the division received scores meeting benchmark, which is just below the 83% who met benchmark during fall 2019 PALS testing.

Woodford said this data is “very promising” and shows the division’s youngest students might not have regressed as much as the division feared when schools originally shut down amid the pandemic in March 2020.

In December, the Bedford County School Board requested grade distribution data comparing the first quarter of the 2019 school year to the first quarter of the current school year be compiled and presented at an upcoming board meeting. According to information obtained by The News & Advance, division administration suggested the board receive that data privately, rather than at a public board meeting as requested.

In a letter to the school board distributed with the grade distribution data, Woodford said, “It would be my suggestion that I update the school board with this data each quarter in this way instead of at a school board meeting. This will prevent any school community from feeling like there is public criticism and it will allow each of you to call and ask questions that you might be uncomfortable asking during a meeting.”

In a statement to The News & Advance, Woodford said she had “no concern” with parents, students and community members seeing this data but added numbers without explanation could be misinterpreted.

“Most of the parents are mostly concerned with their specific students and reach out to the school individually,” Woodford said.

Jason Johnson, chairman of the Bedford County School Board, said this data is concerning but not particularly surprising.

“I think we all were expecting this to be a very challenging year,” Johnson said. “With our children losing about six months of instruction last year, we knew there was going to be a lot of work to be done this year to try to get our students caught back up.”

Johnson said he feels it is important this data be shared and discussed during school board meetings in the future.

In the letter to the school board, Woodford said the division did have concerns about first-quarter grades and has implemented several intervention strategies to help students whose grades are slipping, including using Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds to hire additional staff to address remediation needs, launching a “help desk” to support parents and students, and planning an extended summer school program to address learning loss at all grade levels.

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Education reporter

Cross covers K-12 and higher education for The News & Advance. An Asheboro, North Carolina native, Cross joined The News & Advance team in January 2020 after graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in journalism.

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