When it was announced public schools in New Mexico would not be allowed to start with children in the classroom for fourth grade and up, many wondered what effect it would have on students who were basically left to fend for themselves in a new environment.
As the school year now enters the fourth month of complete online learning, with Google Classroom, Edgenuity, Zoom and other online learning, teaching and meeting software being utilized instead of children attending classes in person with a teacher in the room, an answer is becoming more clear.
Students are falling behind and failing — in a state that already ranks last in the nation for education.
“Around 70% of middle and high school students in Hobbs Schools have at least one failing grade,” Hobbs Municipal Schools Superintendent TJ Parks said.
“We are seeing a lot of Ds and Fs,” Eunice Schools Superintendent Dwain Haynes told the News-Sun. “The remote learning is not a model that is working for kids. We need to get our kids back in school.” He estimated around half of students in the district have had at least one D or F.
And, it’s not just Lea County.
In a recently released study, a survey of teachers state-wide found 20% of students aren’t connecting to school at all, while 40% are failing to regularly complete classwork.
The state-wide survey included districts in the state where students have been allowed to attend school in person two days a week via a hybrid model, and areas they are not allowed in-person learning at all.
Worse, the damage to children forced to participate only in remote learning is mounting.
Lea County parents, teachers, and school administrators are all frustrated.
School officials say the reason remote learning is difficult for many school children is because it requires discipline to log in every day, maintain class schedules different from what students are used to, and not fall prey to distractions that abound at home — from phone calls with friends, to social media, to TV, to heading outside, or just spending extra time in bed.
“Even for a young adult in college, (online classes) take tremendous discipline,” Haynes said. “One of the reasons we bring kids to school … is so we can work with our kids. We can address misunderstandings. We can read their body language. We can find out what they may not understand, or is misinterpreted as it’s being taught. You can’t see that over a screen.”
Parks said while some highly disciplined students are excelling in the online environment, most students don’t fall into that category.
“It’s tough,” he said. “These kids aren’t used to this environment, so it’s hard on them. No one is used to this.”
Tatum Schools Superintendent Buddy Little said families and students, along with teachers and administrators, want children back in the classroom as soon as possible for the student’s well being.
“We are hearing from some families that kids are getting bored with it (remote learning), and it’s getting harder and harder to complete their lessons,” Little said.
Administrators say placing a burden on parents to also be teachers when they get home from working all day, is unfair to students and parents as well. Parents are meant to be parents, and aren’t professionally trained for educational instruction.
Haynes said having parents work all day, come home tired and having to spend several hours with their children working through school work is bad for the families and communities they live in.
“I empathize with our parents and grandparents out there who are going through this remote learning,” he said.
“Some students are struggling. I think a lot of it is working parents aren’t home to stay on top of (students),” Little said.
While all schools are seeing higher failure rates among students, some of Lea County’s smaller districts, can use their size, and familiarity of families and teachers to mitigate some of the negatives resulting from remote learning only. Tatum is one of those districts, Little told the News-Sun.
Tatum Schools uses Edgenuity, but unlike many other districts that started using the program only in the last few months, Tatum has used the program for about five years with the Virtual Academy the district already had in place, “although the only students who were really using it were in our virtual school,” Little said.
Tatum typically has around 25 students attending online only classes, by choice, in the district’s virtual school each year. By comparison, Tatum high school typically has around 90 students in a given year.
Little said being a smaller community helps because teacher, parents and students all know each other outside of the classroom. Checking in on each other is something the community, and school district, has always done.
“Some of our kids are struggling, but our teachers are doing a pretty good job of supporting (students) via webinars or Zoom meeting — we use the Canvas program, same thing like the Junior College uses, where they upload videos to help them with the lessons they are doing with the online program,” Little said. “We had a small failure rate … probably 6-8%, which, from what I’m hearing is a lot less (than other districts).”
A higher failure rate, and students not wanting to, or unable to, connect to remote learning, means there may be more students who are held back a grade level.
“There is a possibility of that happening,” Parks said.
“Those are some decisions we’re really going to have to look at,” Little said.
“This (remote learning) isn’t good for those students who are already having a hard time. I’m not sure what that number (of students held back) will be, but I’m sure it will be more than normal,” Haynes agreed.
The N.M Legislature leadership has hinted they may require an additional 25 school days next year to make up for the loss in instruction caused by the closures this year. If they do make that move, it may likely make next year’s class calendar look more like year-round school.
One bright spot, amongst the high rate of failures caused by remote learning is that special needs students, who are able to participate in classes in person on school campuses, are thriving with more personalized attention.
“They’re doing great,” Haynes said. “We’ve really been able to use this time for (special needs student’s) gain. The are doing remarkably well.”
“We’ve been able to have (special needs students) back some, and it’s really been wonderful for them,” Parks agreed.
Little agreed with the other administrators that special needs students have benefited more from the in-person learning because they are able to connect face-to-face with their teachers.
“Our (special needs students) are actually gaining because we are getting to work with them in such small groups. They’re getting all of the attention right now, so they’re actually passing some of the other kids in the class as far as material covered,” Little said. “They’re really improving their knowledge base and grades overall.”
All administrators agreed the big difference being seen is in students able to attend in-person classes — Pre-K-fourth grade, and special needs students at all levels — and those forced into remote only learning.
“In a typical year we cover ‘X’ amount of material, and this year we’re going to cover about 60% of that ‘X’ amount (in remote learning),” Little said. “(Students not able to attend in-person classes) are loosing a lot of instruction grade-wise. When they come back (for in-person learning), where are they going to be? That’s what we have to figure out.”
Friday afternoon, Hobbs was tabulating grades as the grading period is ending — and hoping for an improvement in those students with at least one failing grade. Preliminary numbers however, show the district still has about 70% of students with at least one failing grade, Parks said disappointedly.
Still, school officials are “trying to build the airplane while it’s flying,” Parks said. The state sets guidelines and rules — sometimes at the last minute — and districts have to adapt to them as quickly and efficiently as they can. School districts aren’t typically designed to change on a whim, so getting things in place can be difficult and have growing pains.
“We’re just doing the best that we can under the circumstances,” Little said.
The News-Sun reached out to Lovington Superintendent LeAnne Gandy and Jal Superintendent Brian Snyder, but no calls were returned by the press deadline.