During COVID-19 pandemic, Salt Lake City elementary students failed fall classes at triple last year’s rate

With the district’s classes entirely online due to the coronavirus, younger kids are struggling.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A second-grader at Bonneville Elementary studies from home using Zoom with her class, on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. Salt Lake City School District saw an increase in "need for improvement" grades among its youngest students with school being entirely online during the pandemic.

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.

Student scores dropped across all grade levels and for every core subject in Salt Lake City elementary schools this fall as kids attended classes entirely online during the pandemic.

The sobering finding comes from an analysis by The Salt Lake Tribune of data it obtained through a public records request to the Salt Lake City School District. Evaluating grades from first trimester report cards shows that the percentage of students falling below grade level for one or more classes leapt from 23% overall in 2019 to 32% this year — or nearly a third of the youngest students in the district.

The lowest grades were for reading and writing, where 40% and 41% of elementary kids are now performing below standard. But science saw the biggest total drop in proficiency. And sixth graders fared the worst collectively.

“Certainly, we anticipated some of this slide,” said Holley McIntosh, a member of the administrative team that oversees teaching and learning for Salt Lake City School District. “We worry, though, about any trend that might show our students are not meeting their goals.”

The decline in student progress has occurred across districts in Salt Lake County as COVID-19 has surged in the state and deeply disrupted education. Granite School District, for instance, where families have the choice to send students in person or online, saw similar surges in failing grades. Most of the failing students there had elected to take virtual courses.

Salt Lake City is the only district in the state to require that all of its students stay home for instruction this fall. And with that, both secondary and elementary students have taken major steps backward in learning, compared to last year.

While junior high and high school students in Salt Lake City saw about a doubling in the number of F grades so far in the academic year, elementary students saw their rate triple.

“There’s definitely different challenges with online teaching in the younger grades,” McIntosh added.

Younger students in the district are graded slightly differently than their older peers. But the lowest score for K-6 students — “need for improvement” — jumped from 2.26% of kids receiving at least one of those marks last year to 6.93% now.

The elementary grading scale, starting at the bottom, is: need for improvement, progressing, approaching standard (also a “1” on report cards), at standard (a “2”) and exceptional performance (a “3”). The bottom three combined can be considered below grade level, which increased overall this fall by roughly 9 percentage points.

Kids in Salt Lake City elementary schools are not given scores of “incomplete,” unlike in high school. If these younger students didn’t show up for class during the pandemic, they fell in the “need for improvement” category.

The data doesn’t include a breakdown of how many absent kids are part of that group. But as with secondary schools, attendance for younger students was down overall.

District officials are now trying to use the data to figure out how to improve student learning and make up the ground lost this first trimester. That will include bringing back most of the 8,000 elementary students for in-person instruction beginning in January.

Missing assignments

Elisabeth Theurer had no idea her son, a fourth grader, had fallen behind in his online classes.

She had been staying home during the day so she could check in on him and her three other kids, making sure they were logging on and joining Zoom calls with their teachers. Apart from a few meltdowns when the Wi-Fi didn’t work, they all seemed to be doing fine. Her son sat at the table each day, wearing his video game headset to listen to lessons and clicking away on the computer.

But a month into school, her son’s teacher asked Theurer: “Is everything OK?” The mom was shocked to find out her 9-year-old was missing more than 50 assignments. Of those, 20 each came from math and science, previously his two favorite subjects.

It turns out the virtual instruction had been overwhelming for him, Theurer said. He logged on and listened but didn’t turn much in. And as soon as he got a little behind, he gave up on catching up.

“He’s always been a really good student,” Theurer said. “It’s as if online school is crushing him.”

Theurer’s son went from having all 3s on his report card before the pandemic — the “exceptional performance” score — to now alternating 1s and scores of “need for improvement.” He cried when he saw the grades.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

He’s not alone. At Bonneville Elementary, where he attends, the “need for improvement” scores jumped from 0.33% before to 1.95% now.

Because of privacy issues, Salt Lake City would not release exact counts of how many students received each score in each subject. The concern is that with the fewer students at an elementary school, that could potentially identify an individual.

Instead, the district gave percentages of students who received each score, by school, grade and subject. The Tribune combined that information with enrollment data from the state for each school and grade to calculate an accurate look at the proportion of students falling behind for 2019 compared to 2020.

(The district said it had no immediate plans to create its own compilation of trends from the grade data, which meant there was no official analysis that could be obtained under a public records request.)

Jennifer Throndsen, director of teaching and learning for the Utah State Office of Education, believes virtual instruction is often more of a challenge for younger students because they are less self-sufficient and are still working to develop their attention spans. On top of that, many in kindergarten and first grade are just learning to read, so they have a much harder time navigating a computer.

“You can’t tell them to click on ‘Google’ or type their name,” said Throndsen, a former first grade teacher. “They’re not there yet.”

And some are attending school for the first time. “A lot of the little kids are like, ‘What are we even doing?’” Throndsen added.

Having a teacher in the classroom is so much different for young kids, she said, because the educator can walk around and help them stay on task. Trying to manage 30 kids online when the students can get up or get distracted or play computer games is next to impossible.

Theurer’s two older kids, both in high school, are able to do their school largely on their own.

But Theurer’s youngest — her son and her 8-year-old daughter in second grade — are struggling, despite a lot of help from teachers. “It’s a lot harder for them to concentrate,” she said.

The sixth grade slide

Across the district, science grades dipped the most of any subject. Before the pandemic, 13% of Salt Lake City elementary students were below grade level. For this fall, that rose by 12 percentage points to 25%.

McIntosh believes that’s because science is difficult to teach remotely; it’s very hands-on. And despite some teachers providing kits for students to do experiments, it’s been a challenge to translate over a screen.

“It’s just hard to re-create that at home,” McIntosh added.

Grades for reading and writing had the most students below proficiency before the pandemic and stayed at the bottom during it, too, with deepening slides.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Like Throndsen, Yándary Chatwin, the spokesperson for Salt Lake City School District, said reading can be a challenge virtually. If students have spotty Wi-Fi, for instance, they might not correctly hear the sound that a letter makes.

Social studies and math grades dropped, too, though not as markedly. Among fifth graders, 48% were not proficient in math, compared to 38% for all grades combined. And fourth graders stood out in writing, where 46% were below grade level, compared to 41% for all grades.

Sixth graders, though, saw the biggest increase in “need for improvement” scores, increasing from 3.12% to 10.98%, The Tribune found. They also had the largest jumps in the percentage of those below grade level for science and social studies, both seeing 15% more students not performing at standard.

Those declines occurred at least in part, Chatwin believes, because those older elementary kids are generally not watched as closely by parents. They’re more independent and able to do things on their own.

Some may be tasked with providing child care for younger siblings during the day if their parents work. Chatwin said she knows of a sixth grader who’s been taking care of her 3-year-old sister this fall while her single mother is working at an essential job. The family’s day care provider caught COVID-19 and has had a difficult time recovering.

John Arthur, a sixth grade teacher at Meadowlark Elementary, added that every day during his Zoom classes, at least one of his students is holding a baby sister or brother while on camera.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Meadowlark Elementary School teacher John Arthur interacting with his students on Zoom, in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020.

“They’re just dealing with so much,” Arthur said, noting that he’s personally decided not to assign any of his students a “needs improvement” grade this term. “This is all so hard for everyone, but it’s harder still for these older kids.”

He added: “No kid should, frankly right now in the pandemic, have a report card mailed home that makes them feel worse about themselves and their situation. I don’t want a single kid opening up that envelope and being afraid of what it says.”

Inequity on the west side

According to The Tribune’s analysis, the five elementary schools in Salt Lake City that had the biggest increases in the percentage of kids failing were all on the west side and all designated Title I, meaning they’re in areas where the concentration of poverty is the highest. Students there were already behind their peers academically before the pandemic.

Riley Elementary went from having 3.09% of students at “need for improvement” in at least one subject in 2019 to 15.12% in 2020 — the single largest jump. Meanwhile, 82% of the students there are minorities.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Some of those schools also saw a more than 40 percentage point jump in “need for improvement” scores in just one grade and subject level. For instance, 49% of fourth graders at Meadowlark Elementary had a “need for improvement” score in science. In 2019, 0% did. Similarly, 49% of second graders at Parkview Elementary were at “need for improvement” for writing. It was also 0% the year before.

Arthur, who teaches at Meadowlark, said students in the west side schools are more likely to have parents who work essential jobs during the day. He believes that contributes to the lower grades.

“It’s not hard to imagine that academic performance would go down during a time of trauma and extraordinary circumstances,” Arthur said. “Everything needs improvement right now. The whole world has a big ‘need for improvement’ on it right now.”

The west-side ZIP codes have also experienced the highest per capita rates of COVID-19 infections in the city and county.

Karla Jimenez and her husband, Fabian, both work away from home during the day. They both got COVID-19 this fall; Jimenez believes she picked it up first from her job. None of their three kids got it, but they helped pick up the slack around the house, cooking meals and helping take care of one another when their parents were too sick.

It was the start of the trimester, and her youngest daughter, a third grader who attends online at Mountain View Elementary, had difficulty logging on and completing her work. She got mostly “at standard” grades this fall, seeing a few dips.

But Jimenez doesn’t want her kids to go back to school in person — even when it’s open again. In fact, she signed a petition against reopening. “I don’t want any of my kids to experience what I went through when I got sick,” she said.

Some solutions

The district’s school board sees its vote allowing elementary students to return in person as the best solution for improving grades (and stopping more parents from moving their kids to another district).

Parents who want to send their kids back to school for face-to-face learning can do so starting at the end of January.

So far, schools have been allowing some small groups of students to come in. Lisa Thomson, whose twin daughters are in sixth grade at at Indian Hills Elementary, said her girls have thrived with even just that. “It has shown me that these children need it,” Thomson said. “They need to be with their peers.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) An empty classroom at Bonneville Elementary School, on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020.

Younger kids, studies in Salt Lake County have shown, tend to get and spread the virus at lower rates — even when they’re back in school. (In the meantime, the rates are still extremely high for spread among secondary students and the district will continue instructing them online.)

The district also will work to improve the virtual experience for students who choose to remain at home.

So far, Salt Lake City has invested in new online programming for teachers and students, McIntosh said. That includes math and science software that’s more interactive for kids. Some Title I schools are also hiring counselors to reach out to students who are failing to figure out what’s going on and how to help.

Kody Colvin, the assistant principal at Escalante Elementary, said that’s helping already at his school. “It’s taken a little bit of time to get up and going, but it’s amazing.”

The district — which includes 26 elementary schools and one that includes grades K-8 — has worked to get all students laptops and internet access at home. When schools shut down in the spring at the beginning of the pandemic, many families didn’t have the right technology. That contributed, McIntosh said, to some unfinished learning that’s translated to lower scores now.

The district is also closely monitoring student grades — sometimes even on a weekly basis — and intervening where needed. “If we know about it, we can get on it early,” she added.

The district may additionally try solutions that have worked at the junior high level. Glendale Middle School had 14% of its students failing after this first quarter. The school realized that most of those were coming in the first classes of the day, when many students weren’t logging on. Chatwin said the principal there decided to start those classes later in the morning. Already, the percentage of those flunking has been reduced to 9%, Chatwin added.

Between the many kids who will return to classes in person and the improvements for those who choose not to, Salt Lake City school officials anticipate that grades for the youngest students will improve for the second trimester.

Tribune reporter Andy Larsen contributed to this story.

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. And if a number or trends in Salt Lake City School District’s raw grading data stands out to you, let us know and we’ll investigate.

2020 raw grading data for Salt Lake City elementary schools

2019 raw grading data for Salt Lake City elementary schools