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I-Team: Students earning D’s and F’s surges during distance learning

A lot of Coachella Valley students are failing or barely getting by in their classes during these times of distance learning. And when it comes to D's and F's in school, there's a very good chance your kid might be getting them. 

Report cards are giving educators a concrete indicator of just how much learning loss our local students have suffered during the pandemic and shutdown orders, and the learning loss is real.

A new study says our students are likely to have suffered up to nine months of learning loss in math alone. That number is likely higher for students of color, according to McKinsey & Company. 

45 percent of its Palm Springs Unified middle school students either failed or received a D grade in their most recent math class. 49 percent got a D or F in their most-recent science class. English and Social studies courses fared only slightly better with nearly 4 in 10 kids getting D's or F's. 

The shockingly high numbers were presented to the Palm Springs Unified School District school board in late January by top administrators.

Mike Swize, PSUSD Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services said, "This is a very difficult period for students to be learning."

High School students fared no better in their distance learning grades. Nearly half the district's students received a D or F grade in their most recent math class. More than a third pulled D's or F's in their English, Science and Social Sciences classes. 

During the meeting, district administrators said some students are overwhelmed by home work, failing classes, tuning out-- and just giving up. Many are first-timers to failing, students who normally doing well in class. 

During the meeting, a student representative, Jasmine Lopez of Cathedral City High School told the board members, "I've struggled myself a little bit this last quarter compared to the rest of my high school career so far."

It's not like students, their teachers and parents aren't trying. They are during these most uncertain pandemic times. And this isn't isolated to Palm Springs Unified. Other districts up and down the state are also facing these very same distance learning difficulties.

"In Desert Sands for example, we're seeing about a 10-percent increase in D's and F's with our middle school and high school students," said Kelly May-Vollmar, the Desert Sands Unified School District's Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services.

But May-Vollmar says the district is aggressively enacting plans to get students back on track academically. 

"It not only helps them catch up," May-Vollmar said, "but it also helps them with how they feel. Nobody likes feeling like you're that far behind when you're looking at graduation that you need."

KESQ News Channel 3 has not been able to receive responsive information from the Coachella Valley Unified School District for this report despite several requests and contacts, but will include such information here once it is received.

Desert Sands has a number of new initiatives, either already underway or planned for this spring and summer, to get students back on track academically. That includes, a 10th grade credit recovery program allowing students to recover their grades and credits, voluntary small group tutoring for students in need of extra support, and plans for greatly expanded summer school offerings for all student grade levels.

"We're looking at having a credit recovery summer school program on every single one of our high school campuses," said May-Vollmar. She added that expanded summer school programs will be offered at every district middle and elementary school.  

"It may be kindergarteners and first graders who fell behind. It might be English learners who need extra support," said May-Vollmar.

The Palm Springs Unified School District is also already creating innovative opportunities to help students improve their grades  and catch up.

"It's been a challenge for our families, our students and also our staff," said Swize who added, "Our request to students and parents would be, 'If the school does, or when the school does reach out to you and offer you those opportunities, please take advantage of them.'"

Swize says Palm Springs Unified will offer greatly expanded spring break and summer school courses for students, while booster classes already underway allowing students to retake classes.

The district is also encouraging teachers to adjust their grading to reflect more on learning, putting quality and comprehension ahead of quantity of work.

"The schools are really working hard to design some innovative opportunities for students to remediate or recover those grades," said Swize. 

Administrators say they're already seeing progress, but a return to in-person instruction will help greatly. And even with the remediation underway, and expected to ramp up, it could take more than a year to really patch this troubled time of distance learning. 

"And we're certainly looking at 'what does it look like in the fall?'," said May-Vollmar.

"Those are conversations we're already having as well. What extra supports need to be put into place? Because we know there will be additional students who will need support and help to catch up," May Vollmar added.

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Jeff Stahl

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