Digital Exclusive: Virtual learning leaves students playing catch-up

Digital Exclusive

Since the end of the first semester, various news outlets have noticed a trend of declining grades when a school went to remote learning. While students were safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, their academic marks struggled to meet expectations.

Locally, four of the 13 school districts in Erie County responded to this story, and all of them saw their students struggle with virtual classes. Dr. Ian Roberts, superintendent of the Millcreek Township School District, said he saw 30 percent of his high school students fail at least one course in the first semester, even though he believes his district has a “rigorous, and even robust” online program.

“There’s no replacement for, or supplanting of solid instructional models that are grounded in in-person teaching,” Dr. Roberts said.

Currently, all 13 districts have returned to their respective school grounds. But time is running out on the school year to make sure all students advance to the next grade in the fall. This has been an ongoing issue for the administration at Iroquois School District, according to assistant superintendent Dr. Thad Urban.

“We’re checking in on them, we’re making phone calls,” Dr. Urban said. “We’re sending emails and sending reminders. We’re nudging when people are falling behind, which sadly, is a lot of the communication with these families.”

But according to Iroquois superintendent Shane Murray, a lot of those calls go unanswered.

“I would say it’s about 75-25,” Murray said. “75 percent of the people we can get ahold of and try to work with, and 25 percent of the people are just like, ‘Leave us alone.'”

A disconnect remains between the administration and the students, even after schools have welcomed kids back. In February, I spoke with Michael Whitney, intake administrator at the Erie County Office of Children and Youth. He said usually, truancies from school for that month are around 20 to 30. This past January, it was 183.

Unfortunately, those numbers have only improved slightly since then, and the reasons range from poor internet connection to severe problems in the home. In 2020, the number of local abuse allegations to Child Protective Services (CPS) was 1,145. In 2019, it was 335.

“When we receive a call, if there’s a situation that demands it,” Whitney said, “one parent leaves the home, or one caregiver has to leave the home, or maybe even sometimes both caregivers… school becomes a back-burner issue. They’re more focused on getting food for the day.”

Erie Police Department deputy chief Rick Lorah said domestic disturbances are the most frequent call his officers respond to, ranging from 16-20 a day. And many times, kids are victims of domestic violence, so home is not the best place to get an education.

“It is actually truly heartbreaking when you think about it,” Lorah said. “The one [safe] thing they had to get out of the house, to get out of that environment, was to go to school.”

Now that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is opening up, children are finding refuge in places like Erie’s Boys and Girls Club and Police Athletic League (PAL).

“I think where [the Police Athletic League] comes in, we still try to emphasize the importance of education,” said PAL coordinator Sgt. Tom Lenox, “where they are playing and hanging out with their peers, and it basically gets them back into the routine.”

Fortunately, many students had a lifeline to keep them focused on their schoolwork. 10 local schools are United Way community schools with specific directors who talk with the families who attend and provide them with essentials.

During the pandemic, those essentials included meals, coats, boots, face masks, hygiene products, iPads, Chromebooks and internet routers, among other things.

“Every child deserves the same quality education and opportunity in life,” said Mike Jaruszewicz, vice president of community impact for the Erie chapter of the United Way. “And so, by listening and working with our partnerships, we’re able to do what we can to bring some of that into the school to reduce that burden.”

Time will tell if the hardships students faced this school year impact their education moving forward. But the local school districts are doing everything they can to get children back on track so they can make the grades and move on.

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