New Hanover County students failing in record numbers, still unknown when schools will fully reopen

Superintendent Charles Foust listens to a presentation on failing grades in the first quarter. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — In line with school districts nationwide, New Hanover County middle and high school students are failing at higher-than-normal rates as Covid-19 continues to keep them out of physical classrooms full time.

The first-quarter data was revealed Tuesday night in a board of education meeting.

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Between 30% and 40% of students at Ashley, Hoggard and Laney high schools are failing one or more classes. New Hanover High School is performing slightly better, with just 18% of students failing at least one course.

Freshmen are struggling the most, with approximately 35% of the district’s ninth graders failing. That’s a concerning data point, considering poor performance freshmen year leads to dropping out, noted the board’s chair, Stefanie Adams.

More than 2,000 of the district’s middle schoolers, or 35%, are failing one or more courses. Williston Middle School is performing at the lowest levels, with 72% of its student body not making the grade.

Students of color are falling behind at disproportionate levels, with close to 50% of the Hispanic and Black populations failing courses in middle and high schools, while just 22% of white students are not making passing grades.

New Hanover County Schools is now scrambling to push students across the first-semester finish line, especially seniors whose diplomas are at risk.

“I do have a concern this was not picked up during the first nine weeks,” board member Judy Justice said. “In a sense, we failed the community, the parents, for not letting them know.”

Later Tuesday night, the board of education voted to waive the number of required credit hours for graduation. As it did last year, the district will use the state graduation criteria of 22 credits, rather than the New Hanover County Schools criteria of 28.

“We want to make sure that we are keeping hope alive for our students and then also providing that opportunity for growth,” said Allen O’Briant, NHCS director of secondary education. “We don’t want it to be one quarter and done. We still have a quarter left.”

In a statement following the meeting, New Hanover County Schools explained it is increasing communication between staff and families, and gathering feedback from students on what is and is not working in remote learning, in addition to waiving some of its policies.

“New Hanover County Schools is committed to supporting students through immediate and ongoing challenges of remote learning during the pandemic, recognizing that students are navigating new learning environments, many times with fewer supports in place,” according to the statement.

New Hanover County Association of Educators President Amanda White, who is also a chemistry teacher at Hoggard, believes the failing grades are a result of students not turning in assignments, more so than them not grasping the content.

“I’m seeing missing, missing, missing, missing,” White said. “I’m like, ‘What are you doing? What do you do after we get off of the Zoom?’”

White explained some students will attend Zoom sessions but still not turn in work, while others will never partake in the virtual classes yet they’ll complete all their work.

Then there are those who have never logged into their learning management system — ever.

“We don’t know where they are,” White said. “That’s a huge issue.”

Asked about attendance at the school board meeting, Assistant Superintendent of Student Support Services Julie Varnam indicated tracking attendance accurately is difficult. Teachers cannot identify a student’s presence for the entirety of the class if they’re participating from home.

“They may be muted. They may not be on video. They may have logged in for a period of time and not the entire time,” she said.

White recommends parents check-in with their children daily and asks to see their completed work. “You can praise them and that’s a great confidence booster,” she added.

In a presentation to the board, O’Briant proposed a list of suggestions from high school principals. One idea was to bring seniors at risk of not graduating back to school for four days. That’s a move high school principals preferred, according to O’Briant; however, the board would need to take the action.

“I think that’s something we need to look at immediately,” board member Jeannette Nichols said.

School board members participate in the Tuesday meeting via Zoom. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)

Board member David Wortman, an advocate for reopening schools fully, agreed. Acknowledging Tuesday was his last meeting on the board, he pressed Superintendent Charles Foust about preparing for Plan A. “This will be the last time you have a board member asking about kids going back to school, probably for a while,” he said.

“The problem is we can’t master Plan B. We’re really struggling in Plan B,” Foust said. But he added the Covid-19 numbers are too high right now to open safely.

“We can’t do it,” Foust said. “And I know people send us emails saying we’re doing harm to students’ social and emotional behavior, but how do you tell a parent your child’s in a cluster, now they’re on a respirator?”

For schools to reopen fully, the district’s health workgroup, comprised of both county and district employees, wants the metric for countywide percent of positive tests to drop to 5% or less. Plus, the district does not have a sufficient number of substitutes to cover absences, especially long-term leaves for quarantines.

Foust noted none of the health officials are endorsing Plan A, anyway. He also suggested districts operating under Plan A are ignoring the recommendations, such as sanitizing playgrounds between recesses and enforcing six feet distances.

Send tips and comments to Alex Sands at alexandria@localdailymedia.com

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