The number of failing Salt Lake City middle and high school students has skyrocketed as all attend classes online

The number of secondary students who failed every first-quarter class showed a 600% increase.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) An empty classroom at Northwest Middle School in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. With all students attending school online, 81 Northwest Middle School students failed all of their first-quarter classes.

Editor’s note • Through a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting in-depth on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on education.

The number of middle and high school students in the Salt Lake City School District who have failed one class — or all first-quarter classes — has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic while all of its students are attending school online.

Data released to The Salt Lake Tribune in response to a public records request shows that 4,000 Salt Lake City secondary students received one or more F’s or incompletes in the first quarter. That’s 1,500 more students failing a class than last year.

And 364 secondary students failed every first-quarter class — a whopping 600% increase in failing students over last year.

The Granite School District, where families have the option to send students in person or online or both in secondary schools, saw similar increases in failing grades, with a high proportion of failing students taking online courses.

Salt Lake City is the only district in the state to keep all students home for instruction. It enrolls about 21,000 students.

The data didn’t include the grades of elementary students, whose term ended later than their older peers.

“The pandemic has really hit our city in ways we’re not seeing in other parts of the state,” said district spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin, noting the high rate of transmission, which means many families are dealing with the virus. “The new learning format obviously is a factor as well.”

She called the increases “disheartening” and said teachers are “working above and beyond. They’re figuring out what the needs are of our students. We need to figure why our students are struggling … so we can get our students back on track.”

On Friday, principals sent emails to every parent detailing the numbers and the ways the schools are responding — from changing schedules, adding more learning time to each class and increasing home visits to bringing in more small groups of students to learn face to face.

The emails also gave tips to parents on how to help their students, including checking to ensure their students are attending their Zoom classes, since most kids who are failing aren’t attending; checking their students’ grades; attending teachers’ office hours; and even taking away video games during the school day.

Plans are being made to boost summer school offerings and connect students with other interventions to make up lost ground.

Pressure to reopen schools is growing

The grades are sure to accelerate pressure on the school board to open up secondary schools for in-person learning.

The board voted 4-3 to bring back elementary school children in phases starting in January. The board member most vocal in advocating that all students return to in-person instruction, Mike Nemelka, was defeated in his reelection bid last month.

Molly Pearce, a parent of students in the district who is advocating that the board give parents the choice to return all students to in-person learning, also received the data and said it proves that the board made the wrong decision.

“As an exhausted parent that has been fighting for in-person learning for my children since July,” she wrote in an email. “I am sad and sick for the many families in our district that have been and are currently suffering academically and emotionally as a result of the poor decision-making and dysfunction we have seen on our school board this year. The distress our board has caused students and families will last long after this pandemic.”

In Salt Lake City, more secondary students failed all classes

Chatwin says the board has been making its decisions on reopenings based on COVID-19 prevalence data — its initial policy was to not bring students back until Salt Lake County’s positivity rate for COVID-19 tests was 5%, and it was 22% for tests reported in the past week.

She anticipates board members will discuss the grades at their next meeting in January. “This is data they haven’t had before.”

Another data point to consider: More parents may continue to pull their children out of capital city schools during the year, to home-school, send to private schools or other districts.

And it could continue next fall: Open enrollment for the 2021-2022 school year started Dec. 1, in which parents can seek to enroll their students in other districts. According to October figures, the district already lost 1,500 students compared to last year. There is no data on how many have left since, Chatwin said.

“We’re losing families that help make our schools a success,” said Kalleen Wright, PTA president of Clayton Middle School, who wants the school board to give all parents the choice to send their students to school. “They’re seeing their kids struggle and it’s hard, as a parent, to sit by … and know they can drive them five minutes away” to another school.

Wright said her own daughter has struggled online — a shock to her family, since she always did well in past years and Wright and her husband, the principal at West High, are involved and supportive.

“My child is very privileged. She has an office completely to herself. She knows how important education is to us. She has all the resources in the world. If [she isn’t] doing well right now, I’m really worried about those underprivileged kids. What’s happening there?”

Concerned that her daughter’s grades would affect how she sees herself as a student, Wright told her: “Those F’s are a failure of online education, not you.”

She is quick to say she supports the teachers, though: “They’ve been asked to do impossible things with limited access to kids yet still provide the same education.”

‘It’s terrifying and extremely concerning’

James Tobler, a teacher at Highland High and president of the local teachers’ union, the Salt Lake Education Association, said teachers want to return to in-person instruction — once it is safe to do so. The association supports the board’s position to hold off on secondary students’ return until the virus is under control.

The association hasn’t determined how low the positivity rate should be to be deemed safe, but “certainly 22% positivity is too high. In New York, they hit 3% and they were freaking out. Here we are at 22% and our district is under a tremendous amount of pressure from the state Legislature and from parents to return to in-person despite the high numbers.”

The statewide positivity rate for tests for the past week was at 25.2% on Friday. That record-high rate indicates a large number of infected people are not being tested, state officials have said, and may be spreading the virus unwittingly.

Tobler also pointed to Granite District’s experience to show that giving parents a choice to return or attend via distance learning may not solve the problem of poor grades. The number of students who failed one or more classes in Granite jumped more from 2019 than it did in Salt Lake City. The increase in the number of students failing all classes, however, was higher in Salt Lake City.

“Granite and other school districts are giving the families the option,” Tobler said, “and a lot of those F’s are coming from parents who chose to go remote.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The majority of the failing grades in Salt Lake City are among high school students. And a third of the students who failed all of first quarter attend West High.

“It’s terrifying and extremely concerning to see that many students failing and particularly those failing all of their classes,” said West Principal Jared Wright. “They’re now off track for graduation.”

The first quarter’s grades actually reflect an improvement compared to midterm, he said. Faculty and staff reached out to failing students and assessed what they were capable of doing in an unprecedented environment. Seeing his staff’s investment in their students, he said, has been “one of the most admirable things I’ve seen in my career.”

But a large number of students still failed, which tells him that something must change.

“Online education for some means they’re not getting access to education,” he said. “That is not a very popular thing to say in the Salt Lake City School District.”

But this “crisis,” as he described it, shows the Salt Lake City School Board should provide families a choice to allow students to return to in person, or stay home, or a mix of both, he said, something he advocated this summer.

“If we can find ways to safely educate students in the building, we should explore those options,” he said. “… We need to provide a model that can actually support a diverse student body that have different needs and different opportunities.”

Middle school students are struggling

Many middle school students are having a hard time keeping up with their school work, too. The schools in Salt Lake City with the largest jumps in students failing at least one class, compared to last year, attend Northwest, Glendale, Clayton and Hillside middle schools. Granite District’s grades showed a similar pattern.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Glendale Middle, where 60% of the students received at least one F, changed its schedule for the second quarter in response. Instead of two days of live Zoom and three of asynchronous learning, students attend four days of live Zoom. Principal Jill Baillie said attendance and grades are already up.

In addition, about 50 students now come to the school for their classes. They log on while working in the school library so they can get help learning how to use the technology and develop habits for online learning, she said.

Students also meet in small groups for activities like archery and biking to address their social and emotional needs.

The transition to middle school from elementary school is difficult in a typical year, when students jump from having three teachers at the most to now up to up to seven, notes Jennifer Throndsen, director of teaching and learning for the Utah State Office of Education who also has a daughter attending a middle school in Salt Lake City.

Having to learn teachers’ expectations via computer, plus navigate the various online platforms and ways to submit assignments, makes school that much harder.

“That’s adding to the failure rate,” she said.

Students who need help and could normally seek it out during class or after school don’t have that option online and must email their teachers.

That might not be a big deal for adults or high school students, but “kids in middle school haven’t learned how to self-advocate,” Throndsen said. “It’s requiring them to step into a more developed role.”

Lack of socializing is also playing a role in students’ poor grades, Throndsen suspects. Developmentally, kids in this age group are forming their identities through social engagement. Socializing is a huge motivator for this age group, she says, and that’s been taken away when they go to school online.

Tyler Howe, principal at Granite District’s West Lake STEM, in West Valley City, said large groups of distance-learning students have been “clamoring” to return to school in the second quarter because they missed seeing friends.

“If there’s one side effect of this whole mess, it’s been that,” he said. “It’s exciting to watch kids value being at school and wanting to be at school.”

He sees a difference in the distance-learning students who are failing one or two classes — who likely need help with technology and self-discipline — compared to those failing all of first quarter. That group, he said, is hardest to reach, let alone to reengage.

“There is a group of our distance learners who are distance learners in name only,” he said. “They’ve registered with us but, to be frank, they just never showed up.”

Building more support

Schools also are trying to help families whose needs extend beyond academics, connecting them with help for rental assistance, food, and even child care. Baillie said one of her sixth graders stopped attending online because the child care provider for a 3-year-old sibling got COVID-19.

“That sixth grader had to jump in and be the caregiver. We’re helping [the family] find some child care. The COVID numbers are huge in our community,” Baillie said. “They’re just running through some of these families.”

Learning may improve for middle and high school students once elementary schools open back up for in-person learning, according to principals.

Wright, West’s principal, knows some high school students are “home watching the younger siblings while they’re doing online school and then the student has to go to work. They don’t have the time or the space really to engage. ... Our model assumes that if they have a computer and internet, it works for them.”

Wright said West has hired a part-time assistant principal and part-time teacher to work with students on credit recovery, or retaking failed classes, so that they graduate. The school also is enrolling seniors with F’s in study skills classes focused on credit recovery.

And Calvary Baptist Church has offered to mentor seniors at risk of not graduating. “If we don’t graduate a kid,” Wright said, “the whole K-12 experiment has failed.”

Throndsen also suspects more students are feeling depressed and anxious with the upheaval in many parts of their lives because of the pandemic.

“Their lives have been drastically altered,” she said. “The social emotional burden is additional, where maybe I had grit, perseverance and agency before, but you’ve taxed me on the emotional side.”

She said the state office anticipates needing to retool teacher training to focus on addressing learning gaps. “We’re anticipating having to accelerate and enhance and do a little bit more background building than what previous cohorts of students [have needed] because of the disruption,” she said.

To be sure, there are students who are doing better online than they were in class.

Shar Wood said her son’s grades have improved, and he is now on the honor roll. He attends the Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts for his electives and Highland High for his core classes.

He’s been able to avoid kids who she said were bullying him. Plus, the accommodations he uses for his attention deficit disorder are easier to implement online, like taking walking breaks. “If he’s in the middle of a test and it’s stressing him out and it’s overwhelming him with his ADD,” she said, “he can get up and walk away for 10 minutes and come back.”

The arts school has started bringing in students for in-person small group instruction, and Wood’s son and his classmates meet via Zoom every day for lunch.

Tina Franco prefers her children and grandchildren remain online because a family member is immunocompromised. Franco, the parent and grandparent of a West High student and two Northwest Middle students, also worries about the health of the teachers.

“I’m doing a lot better” this year, said Josenia Lucero, an eighth grader at Northwest and Franco’s granddaughter. “I have more time to do [class work] and I’m not, like, rushed to do it. On some of the days, I can sleep in and wake up and do my work.”

Seventh grader Alexandra Franco said she doesn’t know if she would return to in-person class if allowed.

“It depends how many cases we’re still getting daily,” she said. “I want this pandemic to be over. It’s just hard we can’t go anywhere and if we do, we’re putting ourselves and other people at risk.”

— Heather May is a Salt Lake City-based freelance writer. She can be reached at heathermayslc@gmail.com. If you have ideas for coverage of teachers, students and solutions to the challenges education faces during the coronavirus pandemic, please email ctanner@sltrib.com.