Fairfax County Confronts the Data That for Too Many Kids, Online Learning Isn't Working

A kindergartner in Las Vegas learns online, August 24. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Fairfax County Public Schools — the education system that includes two Geraghty boys — is coming under withering criticism after the release of a new study that shows online learning is causing a serious drop in academic achievement. The Washington Post, this morning:

Between the last academic year and this one, which for most students is taking place remotely, the percentage of F’s earned by middle school and high school students jumped from 6 percent of all grades to 11 percent — representing an overall increase of 83 percent from 2019 to 2020. Younger students were more seriously affected than older ones: Middle-schoolers reported an overall 300 percent increase in F’s, while high-schoolers reported a 50 percent increase.

The full study can be found here.

This is bad news. But the one silver lining is the fact that teachers are giving out F’s means that they aren’t letting students skate by on minimal on nonexistent effort or excusing a lack of learning by blaming issues with the technology. It is easy to imagine some advocates of distance learning who would prefer not to acknowledge that it fails to teach a significant number of kids.

It is also worth noting that while the percentage of students who are failing is up in almost every category, and represents an absolutely unacceptable decline in performance, it still represents a small portion of the student body overall – eight percent of middle-school students, twelve percent of high school students. About 4,500 students who were not failing last year at this time are now failing. The system has about 28,500 middle schoolers and 59,200 high schoolers.

I don’t know any families who prefer online learning, even if their kids’ grades seem fine. The report notes, “Students who performed well previously primarily performed slightly better than expected during [the first quarter] of this year. In contrast, students who were previously not performing well, performed considerably less well.” The students having the most trouble were the ones having some trouble with in-person learning before the pandemic. The report concludes, “Much of the increase in students earning two or more F marks was among students who were earning D marks previously.”

As noted in a recent editorial, making decisions for a large public-school system during a pandemic is no easy task. The children are generally at low risk – which is not the same as no risk – but certain teachers, coaches, administrative staff, janitors, etc., may be at higher risk. It is difficult to begrudge a school system for having difficulties last spring, trying to throw together an online learning system on the fly, with little warning.

But nine months later, the verdict is in. Online learning isn’t failing every student, but it is failing far too many students. Maybe the damage of students getting stuck with this subpar substitute for six months or so could be overcome over time. Overcoming the damage of a year’s worth of this will be much tougher.

And as numerous studies have demonstrated, the risk of super-spreader events at schools is pretty minimal, even if it is not nonexistent. There is no good reason schools shouldn’t at least try to return to the classrooms, with the standard precautions — alternating days or staggered schedules, spacing out desks, masks, frequent hand-washing — and reverting to distance learning if there is a significant local outbreak.

The Post article doesn’t mention it, but FCPS actually returned certain small groups of students to in-person teaching earlier this year. Specialized high-school career preparatory programs began October 5; these are the classes such as automotive technology, veterinary services, carpentry and cosmetology that are particularly difficult to effectively teach online. Preschool autism classrooms and early childhood class-based programs returned October 19.

And then . . . students in these groups returned to distance learning this week because of an increase in local cases.

Right now, conditions permitting, grades one and two are scheduled to return to two days a week in-person classes December 8. Grades three through six are scheduled to return to two days a week in-person classes January 12. Middle- and high-school students in Grades 7–12 are scheduled to return January 26.

Perhaps this winter Fairfax County will see a terrible increase in COVID-19 cases. The county, which has a population of 1.1 million people, currently has about 29,000 cases and 2,513 people hospitalized, with 632 deaths so far. No one under age 17 has died; only 28 people under age 50 have died, and only 83 people under age 65 have died. The testing positivity rate for the week of November 15 is 7.01 percent, which is high compared with all weeks since June, but is actually down a bit from the previous week, when it was 8.34 percent. Guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that anything below 5 percent represents the “lowest level” of risk of significant transmissions in schools, and that anything below 20 percent still represents a “lower risk” of significant transmissions in schools. Governor Andrew Cuomo set the New York’s threshold at 9 percent.

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