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San Diego County Students Are Failing Classes At Higher Rates Amid Pandemic

A student participating in a distance learning virtual class during the COVID...

Photo by Ross D. Franklin / AP

Above: A student participating in a distance learning virtual class during the COVID-19 pandemic in this file photo taken Sept. 2, 2020.

Listen to this story by Joe Hong.

The numbers are preliminary, but reports from some county school districts show a spike in failing grades as the first full semester of distance learning amid the pandemic draws to a close.

In normal years, Grossmont High School English teacher Daemein Patterson says he has about five or six students with D’s and F’s. But this year, among his 37 students at Grossmont High School in El Cajon, 12 have failing grades.

“It’s hard to focus when you’re in your bedroom and it’s comfortable and you have your bed there and your Playstation,” he said.

San Diego County Students Are Failing Classes At Higher Rates Amid Pandemic

Reported by Joe Hong

But he says that’s only part of the problem. Some of his students have shouldered burdens beyond their schoolwork since the pandemic hit.

“Some of them have jobs that they’re working,” he said. “They are taking care of siblings while their parents are working or going to school.”

These issues are not unique to Grossmont High. At Sweetwater Union High School District, for example, 28% of all grades in high schools are D's and F's. Last school year, 20% were D's and F's. It’s yet another stark reminder of how hard it’s been for educators to hold students accountable while being sensitive to their needs during distance learning.

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When schools first closed in the spring, Grossmont Union High School District adopted a no-harm grading policy, but Superintendent Theresa Kemper said some students just stopped trying.

“So we did want to provide more accountability,” Kemper said. “Coming into this school year, we said grades are on, and you’re starting this year fresh this way, so everything counts in the classroom.”

But when the district saw the uptick in failing grades, principals and counselors ramped up outreach efforts and started a credit recovery program through which students can make up missed work.

“After school or before school in the winter session in December or January, they can work with teachers to go back and fix that grade,” she said.

RELATED: San Diego Unified Delays In-Person Learning Due To COVID-19 Surge

At Poway Unified School District, about 7% of all grades are F’s this year, which is nearly twice the percentage as last year. David LeMaster is the executive director of learning support services at the district. He says the most effective remedy has been bringing students back to campus, even if it’s just for one or two days a week.

“When we see a student struggling, the principal or counselor will reach out and offer them the ability to come in and learn virtually on campus,” LeMaster said. “That has really helped to re-engage the student into the learning.”

LeMaster said he’s not too worried about long-term consequences. He’s confident that teachers and counselors will be able to keep students on the right path.

“I think we’re early enough in the year where we can catch those students and get them back on track and ready to go so it doesn’t affect the numbers of kids graduating or getting into the colleges that they want to get into,” he said.

Patterson, the Grossmont Union High teacher, says this year has proven that there is no real substitute for an in-person classroom.

“Students just tend to do better in the environment inside of a classroom where they’re in front of a teacher and they’re held accountable,” he said. “They have teachers to check in on them and make sure they’re on task.”


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Joe Hong
Education Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs an education reporter, I'm always looking for stories about learning. My favorite education stories put a student's face on bigger policy issues. I regularly sift through enrollment data, test scores and school budgets, but telling student-centered stories is my top priority.

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