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Are Students Failing, or is the System Failing Students?


As school buildings closed in the spring of 2020 and teachers across the globe managed crisis teaching from a distance, parents, and educators worried about learning loss and the impact of remote instruction on students. August came, and early reports showed that learning loss due to the infamous “Covid slide” was a reality. In fact, major education researchers like NWEA and The Brookings Institute projected significant reductions across the board based on early assessment indicators, specifically in math and for marginalized student populations. But keep in mind, researchers were working off of limited data sets as districts and states canceled spring assessments due to school closures.


A new school year emerged, and even with limited training, teachers had more preparation around successful online learning and distance teaching. Schools around the nation prioritized internet access and delivered digital devices to students in need. It seemed as if all districts had prepared themselves for the reality that the pandemic could continue to close school buildings and impact teaching models. So, what went wrong?


Even with increased preparation from schools, this fall has seen an explosion of news stories from around the country of students failing classes at a much higher rate than they were pre-Covid-19. A report from Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia noted in The Washington Post showed “concrete evidence that online learning is forcing a striking drop in students’ academic performance, and that the most vulnerable students — children with disabilities and English-language learners — are suffering the most.” In fact, across the nation, failing grades have increased two to three times over previous years, according to VOA News.


While students and teachers manage shifting schedules and bouncing between in-person and distance learning, the sad truth is that remote learning in its current state is failing kids.


The Digital Divide Widens Every Day

While schools and communities have done their best to narrow the digital divide, students still struggle to access learning. Common problems include sharing devices among siblings, trying to attend class and do work on a smartphone, or having an inconsistent internet connection shared among students and parents.


Beyond typical technical problems, some students lack quiet space to attend classes or feel uncomfortable sharing their homes on a Zoom screen full of peers. These factors make it all too easy for students to miss or skip class, either because they can’t connect or because they have emotional distress attached to sharing their home environment so publicly.


Schools and teachers should have frequent, one-on-one check-ins with every student to ensure they can access learning. While Zoom cameras are great tools, teachers should discuss other options with students and see if solutions like preloaded backgrounds or removing on-camera time can help.



Teachers Have Not Always Been Fully Prepared to Teach Online

Districts offered some professional learning over the summer and throughout the fall, but most of this was geared towards how to use the apps and digital tools they’d be using to support learning. Very few teachers received support around distance learning pedagogy, such as:

- what good instruction looks like from a distance

- balancing synchronous and asynchronous activities

- how to monitor students’ needs from afar

- how to build relationships with students (a key indicator in student achievement)



While some teachers continue to excel in these areas, students’ needs have changed and teachers have a whole host of new challenges to solve while worrying about their own health and their own families.


Teachers can access tons of free learning tools and instructional resources from social media groups and other teacher-focused blogs like We Are Teachers and Edutopia. Professional development companies like Corwin and Solution Tree offer free webinars to support distance teaching and learning as well. There are also well-written and researched books like Teaching on the Education Frontier and Creating the Anywhere, Anytime Classroom (authored by Pointful Education’s Chief Academic Officer, Crystal Guiler).


Students’ and Teachers’ Mental Health Impacts Learning

There has been an increased focus on social emotional learning (SEL) as research has shown that students’ mental health issues have risen substantially this past year. Managing stress, dealing with conflict, building relationships, fostering self-awareness, and building other well-being-focused skills is more important than ever.


Some teachers have seen success with simple strategies like incorporating yoga, meditation, or even music into daily instruction. These brain breaks can improve students’ well-being and reduce stress, leading to increased learning and focus.


Some Students Don’t (or Can’t) Show Up

With the pandemic impacting family situations and income, many students have been forced to step in and help their families in different ways. This may mean that students are caring for younger siblings or older grandparents. It also may mean that they are picking up extra work to help pay bills. Other students may just be unmotivated to show up and it’s more difficult for schools to enforce attendance.


Connect with students one on one and work with your school leadership and guidance counselors to find supports for students who are consistently missing class. Treat attendance issues as you would when teaching in person and connect with parents to discuss strategies or involve school leadership to determine other solutions.


Learning Disruptions are all too Common

We’ve all dealt with changes in school schedules, added in-service days, canceled bus schedules, quarantines, and more in this 2020 school year. Students thrive with consistency, and the constant changes make focusing on learning tasks challenging.


Work with students to create consistent class routines and schedules. Adding elements of teacher clarity, including clear learning expectations and success criteria, will help students know what is expected of them and how they can be successful. And always remember to provide clear and consistent feedback on their work.

Grades are indicating that distance learning isn’t working for many students, but the factors beyond the virtual classroom play a large role in students’ performance. This is an opportunity to understand why students are struggling. Consider other ways students can show competency and apply learning—ways that work for each student individually. And always remember that a teacher can be the absolute greatest influence on student learning, even from a distance.



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