Arizona school districts see surge in failing grades amid COVID-19 learning changes

Posted at 11:15 AM, Dec 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-09 07:17:47-05

TUCSON, Ariz. — COVID-19 is not only causing declines in student enrollment, but in academics. Failing grades surged in the first quarter in Southern Arizona. And now districts are scrambling for short-and long term solutions.

KGUN 9 is taking a look at what's happening in Vail and Sunnyside school districts, and what they say parents need to know and do.

FULL SECTION: State of Education in Arizona

The alarm sounded early in the pandemic. Experts warned this unexpected experiment in remote learning would take a serious academic toll on struggling students, and even high achievers.

Case in point -- an A and B student in Vail who now has F’s in nearly all her classes. Her parent spoke to KGUN 9 on the condition of anonymity to protect the family's privacy.

"We had a variety of technology issues," the parent said. "She couldn’t get into the online classes with the hybrid model teachers left. And now my child is behind for no fault of her own."

Despite the parent and district’s effort to fix it, the student became frustrated and is now giving up.

"There’s no way in her mind that she can come back from these F’s," the parent said.

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She’s not alone. The surge in F’s district-wide is described as "alarming."

Debbie Penn is the Deputy Superintendent of Teaching and Learning at Vail.

"If you think in terms of like an algebra class, if we have about 14% failure rate in an algebra class on a typical year, it will get our attention and what we're currently seeing is about 30%," Penn said. "I would say that it definitely got our attention. Very strong students were struggling in ways that they hadn't before. We, of course, want our students to be successful."

Penn says many students really struggled after the shift from remote to hybrid learning.

"It proved to be really difficult to deliver the kind of instruction that we really wanted to at the beginning of the school year," she said.

And while the district worked for weeks to find the right learning dynamic, Penn says students were falling further and further behind.

"Some of our students who were struggling were just continuing to struggle, and that was building," Penn said.

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It’s a similar story in the Sunnyside district. Failing grades spiked dramatically. It tripled to 30% at the middle school level and doubled at the high school level -- reaching 47% -- meaning nearly half the grades in the high schools are F.

Jose Gastellum is the Assistant Superintendent at Sunnyside.

"It’s definitely eye-opening," Gastellum said. "It forces you to drill down to what’s actually happening right and treating it case by case, because they all have different circumstances."

Sunnyside leaders are now turning to teachers for answers.

"They’re the one in the trenches and we got to give them a voice," Gastellum said.

Both Vail and Sunnyside have been working on new strategies, including what students are assigned, how their work is graded, whether the technology is working, and how students are spending their time.

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"There’s that whole piece of self-discipline and balance, and that’s tough to learn when you’re a teen or even for your elementary students," Gastellum said.

But both districts say there’s one key component that’s sometimes missing in the equation — parents.

"When something is going on at home, let us know about that so that we can support you," Penn said. "The communication right now is absolutely critical. We have to find new ways to do that. We're traveling this kind of new path together."

Penn describes pandemic learning as traveling a very bumpy road that won’t completely smooth out.

"What we can do is make it better than it was yesterday and make it better than it was last week. And that’s what we’re trying," she said.

Vail reports Tuesday that the overall failing rate is improving -- now totaling 10%, which is down from 30% 6 weeks ago.