Number of failing students in Berkeley County schools doubles during pandemic

Updated: Dec. 9, 2020 at 3:55 PM EST
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BERKELEY COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC) - New data shows the number of students failing at least one class in Berkeley County has more than doubled during the first quarter of this unusual school year, compared to the same time period last year.

These new revelations come less than a day after the Berkeley County School Board voted to move all classes virtual for a week after Christmas break.

The report, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, showed 6,590 students in Berkeley County schools were failing at least one class by the end of the first nine weeks, compared to 2,876 students during the same time period of the prior school year.

Many of those struggling, 3,876 students, were enrolled in the blended distance learning pathway; 2,683 were enrolled in the traditional learning pathway; 31 students were enrolled in the virtual learning pathway.

However, these numbers only account for about 18 percent of the total student population in Berkeley County.

District officials have not yet responded to several requests for comment on the data.

Meanwhile, some school board members, who voted against the transition back to virtual learning for all students following the Christmas holiday break, said they are concerned about what the move could mean for students who have already struggled this school year.

“We’ve been trying to teach our kids both virtually and in class together by the same teacher, and that’s putting an enormous amount of stress on our teachers. And at the same time, it’s not the best education for our kids. And instead of helping some of our kids, we’re causing problems across the board. So, I just feel that this was misguided at this time,” school board member Michael Ramsey said.

In a statewide call to action, officials with the Palmetto State Teachers Association are urging school districts to “immediately re-evaluate their current instructional models.”

“Over the past five days, the spread of COVID-19 has accelerated rapidly across our state and nation, with leading health experts warning that the situation is likely to get far worse before it improves. As a result, state and school district leaders must review operational practices to protect the health and safety of those that learn and work in our schools. To date, many schools and districts have been able to operate some version of face-to-face operations without experiencing significant COVID outbreaks. However, the health conditions in schools naturally mirror the conditions in the communities they serve, and as health conditions deteriorate, we can not assume practices that worked in September will continue to be safe in coming weeks,” a press release stated. “While operational decisions should ultimately be aligned to local conditions, the latest data from DHEC shows the rate of spread of COVID in most counties to be higher now than it has been at any point this school year. This virus is just as deadly as it was in September, so we should not operate in a way now that is less effective at protecting the health of students and staff than what we used to open the school year.”

The association’s Director of Governmental Affairs said the data is concerning but expected.

“I would be hesitant to say that any one person or group is at fault because at the end of the education is about the achievement of the individual child. So we need to look at every situation individually. I know it’s easy, and I know there’s value in looking data in the aggregate, collectively for all students, but even in perfect times, aggregate data runs the risk of masking individualized student needs,” PSTA’s Patrick Kelly said. “In some situations, the failing grade may be a result of the student not turning in work, but why? There could potentially be an infinite set of reasons. It could be students just not wanting to do the work. It could also be because a student’s family has no income right now or their internet is spotty. It could be a teacher hasn’t changed their instructional model. But again, why? Is it because they haven’t been given adequate time, or training or support to adjust? So, I know the desire is to look at the aggregate. But we need to get down to the individual level and be able to dig into why. Because this is not normal times. This is a pandemic that has shaken our entire society, and so we should be less concerned about assigning fault than we should be about identifying the root causes of troubling academic data.”

Kelly suggested the pandemic has highlighted the state education system’s flaws, many of which the PSTA has been working to address.

“The pandemic has really acted as an x-ray for South Carolina’s education system in exposed issues, that existed before the pandemic, but have been exacerbated or certainly brought to greater light. One of those is around our grading practices,” Kelly said. “Grading practices really need to be re-evaluated. Our AccelerateED task force called on districts to rethink grading practices. So, when I see data on student failures during the first nine weeks, the deeper question I want to ask is, what was the cause of those failures? Was it missing homework assignments or was it student performance on assessments that were designed to measure their learning? Because those are two different things…We have to remember we can’t continue like we should see normal academic performance from students in a situation that is beyond abnormal.”

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