“If I could send my boys to school five days a week, I would,” said Jamie Rooks. Since that isn’t possible, “I encourage every parent to stay on top of their kids in this new learning environment.”
A mother of two and a registered dental hygienist at Whiteville Family and Cosmetic Dentistry, Rooks knows her sons can do the work, but, “School isn’t at the top of their list.”
Her son Thatcher is a sophomore at Whiteville High School, and Camden is a seventh grader at Central Middle.
Earlier in the year, Rooks texted the boys frequently throughout the day even though their grandmother was at home with them. It was the only way she knew to make sure they were showing up for their virtual classes.
Then she signed up for Power Schools and Classroom Dojo, the apps that allow parents to monitor attendance and assignments and communicate with teachers by text or email.
“At first my kids didn’t know I had Power Schools,” she said. But then she confronted them about work they said they had completed. “I was able to say, ‘Nope. Look, I can tell right here that you haven’t. I easily busted my kids on their assignments.’
“I applaud the teachers for all they’ve done,” she said. “From the janitor to the superintendent, it’s definitely a different world of education, one I wouldn’t want to have to go through.”
The monitoring apps are “a saving grace,” she said. “If my kids didn’t have the reinforcement of parents or grandparents to stay on top of them, they would do the bare minimum.”
‘It’s a partnership’
City and county schools officials say involvement like that by Rooks is crucial if students are to achieve adequate academic growth in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whiteville City Schools Superintendent Marc Whichard provided statistics showing that 23% of elementary students received at least one F on their first-quarter report card, compared to 12% at the same time last year. At the middle school level, 49% made an F the first quarter of this year, compared to 11.5% a year ago.
Among high school students, 21% failed at least one class on their first-quarter report cards, compared to 11% last year. At the alternative school, 65% of students made at least one F, compared to 48% a year ago.
Children in grades K-2 do not receive letter grades, but current literacy testing data show “a higher level of non-proficient students” compared to last year, Whichard said.
Failing students tend to be those with excessive absences, not usually due to technology access or appointments, but because of not logging in or responding when called on.
Older students with less parent supervision think they can lie in bed or go for a snack at any time, according to Whichard’s report. Remote high school students “do not think they will be held accountable for attendance or grades.” On the other hand, students attending school either two or four days a week “are meeting attendance requirements and submitting quality work on time.”
Report cards were a “wake-up call for many,” Whichard said, and performance is improving. Teachers and assistants offer one-on-one and small group remediation outside of normal class periods.
Whichard wanted the public to know that the schools are striving to meet social and emotional needs and “ensure the success of all students, but it is a partnership.”
‘We can’t do it by ourselves’
“Decisions students make now about whether to join a Google meet and do their work will impact them in the future,” said Columbus County Schools Superintendent Deanne Meadows.
During the first quarter, 40% of county schools students in grades 3-12 received at least one F, Meadows said, compared to about 6% last year.
The failure rate is higher among the 1,700 county students attending school 100% remotely, Meadows said. That is approximately a third of the school system.
Most failures seem to be due to very poor class participation, she said. “If they are not participating, there is no way to pass.”
Teachers, counselors, principals and social workers spend hours on the phone with parents, “trying to get students engaged,” Meadows said. They find that many parents “think it’s (the schools’) responsibility to get kids educated, but we need help from parents.”
Since report cards went out, participation has improved, she said. Principals have urged seniors and students falling behind to take advantage of four-day face-to-face instruction where openings were available.
Meadows encouraged parents to stay in touch with teachers. “We can’t do it by ourselves,” she said.
Technology and human struggles
Michael Powell, principal of Chadbourn Elementary School, said he struggled with virtual instruction during graduate school, but, “I was just dogged enough not to quit,” so he understood that parents had a lot to learn about technology.
Powell told the Columbus County Board of Education at its Nov. 2 meeting that he and his faculty were “trying to encourage (remote students) to come back.”
However, it’s hard to persuade parents to send children to school when they have lost relatives to the virus, said Georgia Spaulding, principal of Evergreen Elementary.
Principal Kelly Bullard of Tabor City Elementary said that some parents “are not disciplined enough to get themselves out of bed in the morning, much less their children.” Bullard said that older adults raising their grandchildren or great-grandchildren “don’t know how to help (them.) That’s what we’re up against. We need students back in school face to face.”
Even technologically savvy parents find online education frustrating, said Cindy Kirby, a physician and mother of three. Teachers use “meeting apps I never even heard of, and I use them routinely.”
Kirby’s oldest daughter, Lizzie, attends Columbus Career and College Academy remotely. She said some of her classmates lack home internet access, and each teacher thinks the others are not giving much work, so they give extra. The CCCA senior said some students are “working super hard” and “trying their best,” but most aren’t.
Kirby’s youngest daughter, Caroline, “will literally fall asleep” during virtual classes, her mother said.
Caroline, a WHS freshman, said she means well, but “It’s just hard to pay attention. At school, I can’t sneak my phone out. At home I can bring my phone out and they can’t see.”
Caroline was a straight-A student before schools were closed in March, Kirby said. “It’s been a huge change and it’s taking a serious toll.”
WHS junior Caffie Kirby said she misses seeing her teachers face to face three days a week, and, “Teachers say it’s so difficult to get everyone to turn their camera on.”
Caffie said she didn’t want to judge anyone based on their work style, and, “If you’re good at learning, (virtual school) is all right.” But for many, it’s hard to absorb and retain information taught online.
Caffie couldn’t say how much the problem was technological and how much was human: “They are intertwined,” she said. “Once one thing starts to go bad, the whole thing goes bad.”