Struggling Fairfax Co. students fare worse with virtual learning

A significant number of Fairfax County students in middle and high school are doing worse academically than last year because of distance learning.

That’s according to a new study from the county schools’ office of research and strategic improvement, and it’s based on the first quarter, which ended on Oct. 30.

The 2020-2021 school year began Sept. 8, with the majority of students staying home. In most cases, students who had already been doing well are doing just as well, if not better, than expected.

However, learning-disabled students —  and English-as-a-second-language students — are falling significantly behind.

In a statement, the county said it asked for the study to understand the problems brought on by distance learning, instead of only relying on complaints from parents and teachers and other anecdotes.

“There are many factors that may influence student success during virtual learning,” a school system spokeswoman said, “including less motivation due to distance from teachers and peers, challenges with learning environments outside of a school setting, and a need for more independence with learning and completing projects.”

Virginia’s largest school system looked at the data in an effort to find out how students are performing year over year, how much increased academic rigor has to do with falling grades, and how past academic performance was reflected in the current school year’s grades.

The research office notes one deficiency in its report: It looked for two failing marks overall for one macro aspect of the study, but only performance in English and math classes for its more nuanced analysis. The report is based on grades submitted on Nov. 11 for the first grading period.

In one of the most extreme examples, middle school students getting a D or an F in two or more classes increased by 350% compared with this time last year.

Overall, the number of F grades in the system overall increased — from 6% of all grades at this time last year, to 11% of all grades in the first quarter of 2020-2021.

One of the report’s conclusions noted surprise in how far historically underperforming students had fallen off track this year.

“Students who were previously not performing well, performed considerably less well. A greater proportion of low-performing students received failing grades during Q1 than would have been  expected based on patterns of marks in prior years.”

Students with learning disabilities performed “unsatisfactory” (described as grades lower than a C) at a rate of 111% higher than last year. Students for whom English is a second language had an increase of 106% in unsatisfactory marks.

In a statement, Superintendent Scott Brabrand said the school system is working to intervene in the cases where students are falling significantly behind.

“We have taken several actions already, including implementing catch-up days, extending the first quarter and are continuing to look at ways the FCPS can help address student workload challenges,” he said.

The school system pointed to its changes in how it evaluates student performance during pandemic-related distance learning.

The school system recently rolled back some of its in-person learning programs because of rising coronavirus case counts in the county.

Those students — who began in-person classes Oct. 26 — were back to online learning on Monday. They include those taking culinary, computer, dance, music and other career training courses, as well as Burke elementary students.

Brabrand also recently hosted a “return to school” town hall, during which he said the county’s distance learning results had been mixed so far.

“We are looking at grade data already by high schools. It does look like we have more Ds and Fs in many of our schools. Some of our schools are also reporting more As. How can that be? I think the reality is, online learning works for some kids and may even work better for some kids based on their learning style. For other kids, online learning is a struggle.”

Across the D.C. area, other jurisdictions have delayed or reversed plans for students to return to the classroom, including Virginia Beach and Henrico County and Calvert County in Maryland.


More Coronavirus news

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

WTOP’s Kristi King, Michelle Basch and Abigail Constantino contributed to this report.

Dan Friedell

Dan Friedell is a digital writer for WTOP. He came to the D.C. area in 2007 to work as digital editor for USATODAY.com, and since then has worked for a number of local and national news organizations.

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