Failing classes, declining grades: Whether virtual or in-person, pandemic learning has been a hurdle

MIDDLETON, Wis. — Grant, finishing up second grade, had a rough go of it for most of the school year until his class transitioned back into mostly-in-person learning later in the spring semester.

“Grant is a very social kid, he really feeds off working in groups, working in teams,” their mother Katelyn Halko, in the Middleton-Cross Plains school district, explained. “Socially, emotionally, he definitely suffered; behavior was kinda all over the place. There were days he’d cry because he was just so bored.”

His academics didn’t suffer so much as his social development, Halko said. But his younger twin brothers, Ben and Alex in 4k, had a different experience.

The novelty of Zoom classes wore off after just a week.

“The teachers were amazing, the amount of effort that you can tell they put in,” Halko said. “But they had no interest in building any kind of relationship with peers or teachers over Zoom.”

They needed special speech services, which simply didn’t compute for them virtually. “They just had no interest in it, it was like pulling teeth every day.”

Student experiences during the pandemic have varied for younger and older students alike. But both socially and academically, a few undeniable trends emerge. For many districts, the number of students failing classes or declining grades increased throughout the fall and spring as the pandemic continued to impact school district choices across southern Wisconsin.

News 3 Investigates sent data requests surrounding attendance and academic performance to 5 of the largest school districts in southern Wisconsin: Madison Metropolitan, Middleton-Cross Plains, Sun Prairie, Janesville, and Beloit. All but Sun Prairie provided the information requested, but Janesville was the only district that agreed to discuss students’ pandemic learning in an interview.

Slipping grades

Average GPAs among high schoolers, too, have slipped in several districts. Janesville high schoolers saw a slight decline from 2.6 pre-pandemic to 2.4 currently, although the superintendent said most of that decline was in the 9th and 10th grade when students may have been less able to handle the complexities of schooling amid possible other issues like family unemployment or other pandemic-related pressures.

Beloit’s average GPA declined from 2.1 in the third term of the last school year to 1.5 in the third term of the current school year.

Madison’s average is a bit more complicated, as the district switched to a pass/fail grading model this year. The current average GPA sits at 3.0, up from a pre-pandemic 2.8, but in addition to the pass/fail grading system there are also some classes from the first semester that haven’t yet been factored in.

Attendance and chronic absenteeism

Absentee comparison rates for most districts are complicated to calculate given the irregular changes of the first few months of pandemic learning as well as changes to how the Department of Public Instruction required absentee rate tracking.

For the most part, attendance has stayed at 90% or higher for most of the school districts polled. However, tracking has been done in a variety of ways during the pandemic, including traditional in-person ways as well as a variety of approaches for virtual learning. In Madison, for instance, a virtual student is recorded as present by meeting just one out of several metrics, one of which is a two-way communication between teacher and student.

Beloit was an outlier, where attendance ranged from 79 to 82% through the current school year.

More students failing classes

Whether largely in-person or mostly virtual, some school districts saw an increase in students failing one or more classes in the first semester of the 2020-2021 school year (that information is largely not available yet for the current semester.)

The number of high school students in Middleton (all or mostly virtual until midway through the current semester) failing at least one class in the first semester of the current school year more than doubled from the 2019 fall semester, jumping from 156 to 371 students. Almost 600 middle school students partially or completely failed at least one class during both semesters, up from 410 in the last school year (partially–because middle school students are graded in part on standards, so a failing grade could be in one standard while passing others in the same class.)

“We will continue to work to support all of our students,” spokesperson Perry Hibner said in a statement. “Those who struggled the most this past year will have an opportunity to make progress through our inaugural Summer Academy.” The district is starting a summer school for the first time for grades 1-8, he noted, to help the most severely-affected students catch up from the past year.

In the Madison Metropolitan School District, where in-person learning was only recently phased in, an average of 20% of their high school students failed at least one class in the fall semester. More than 1,000 high school students–about a third in 9th grade–failed at least one in Beloit, representing about a sixth of the school’s total student population.

But a decline in academic performance isn’t unique to models that have been largely virtual for the majority of the current school year. Janesville maintained a 90% or higher average attendance throughout the past school year, with the district offering in-person learning from day one. Currently, an average of 83% of the district’s students across all grades opted for fully in-person learning. About 15-18% of students, depending on grade, opting for virtual or hybrid models.

Yet some grades still declined, and more than a quarter of high school students–31% in 11th grade–failed at least one class in the first semester.

“That’s always a concern, those numbers are off a little bit from pre-pandemic, certainly,” Janesville Superintendent Steve Pophal said, adding that they plan to use some of the federal government’s relief funding for the purposes of recouping from the decline.

“We’re really prioritizing intervention programming and remediation programming and making sure that we have high-quality instructional resources in the hands of our kids.” (Janesville was the only school district of the five largest in south central Wisconsin that agreed to an interview about academic performance during the pandemic.)

“We think we’ll be able to support those kids,” Pophal said. In addition to enhanced long-term programming, he said summer school and other forms of immediate help would help with lower grades and failed classes.

“It’s a combination of short-term, immediate response–along with capacity building down the road.”

Related: The Virtual Impact: How the pandemic influenced student enrollment, Parents will need to work hard to get students caught up after virtual learning causes ‘COVID slide’