MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – Nearly a quarter of Mobile County Public School System students earned at least one failing grade during the first semester as COVID-19 disputed instruction and upended families, according to data provided Friday.
During the semester, which featured several weeks of remote-only instruction to open the year and a hybrid after that, 12,726 students got at least one failing grade. That’s more than double the 5,822 who got a failing grade the first semester last school year.
School system spokeswoman Rena Philips said administrators expected the increase and have taken steps to try to catch up students who have fallen behind.
“COVID-19 has affected every part of our lives, including our teaching our learning and our students’ performance,” she said. “We knew that it would. We are preparing for how we’re going to fix that, as the pandemic will hopefully wind down. But we do have programs in place.”
Mobile school board President Reginald Crenshaw echoed that.
“It’s been quite a challenging year for the teachers and also for the administrators at the school,” he said. “We’re trying to get the students to buckle down and to do the virtual learning and stay focused there on the computer for their class assignments.”
It’s not just Mobile. Philips noted that failing grades and doubled or tripled in school systems throughout the country.
Baldwin County schools officials said this week that the number of first-semester grades there this school year was more than twice as high as the previous year.
As in Baldwin, Mobile County school system officials found that older students struggled more. Elementary school students earning a failing grade jumped from 2,195 to 4,149, but spiked from 3,627 to 8,577 among middle- and high-school students.
Among students in the school system’s pre-existing virtual program, Philips said, some 99 percent of students kept passing grades.
The school system offered a different option called “remote learning,” which allows students to learn at home from the same teachers instructing students in classrooms. Philips said that was a necessary health-and-safety measure and offered peace of mind to families weary of exposing their children to COVID-19. But she acknowledges that it presents challenges for teachers and students, alike.
“The remote learning is different for our students,” she said. “It’s harder. Nothing will replace in-person learning. So as hopefully as these numbers go down and we can return more students to the classroom, we can have some programs in place to catch them back up.”
Beyond disruptions in the classroom, Philips said, the pandemic exacerbated other problems that made learning harder.
“We do have families who've lost their jobs. We’ve had families that have been evicted. We have a mental health crisis. And so all that is going to affect what’s going on in the classroom and how the students are learning.”
Crenshaw said teachers have done a remarkable job under trying circumstances. He said the school board is making plans for expanded summer-school options.
“In the past, summer school was only offered at certain schools. We’ll probably have more sites now. We'll probably spend a little bit more time on, you know, those particular courses that they failed as opposed to just specific courses. But again, every effort that we come up with will be taken to get them back onto on the right track.”
Philips said the schools already are making efforts to close the gap caused by what educators call “learning loss.” The intervention takes many forms.
“We’re doing individual intervention, small-group intervention,” she said. “We’re doing after-school tutoring, Saturday school. We brought in some retired teachers to help with their most struggling students.”
Philips praised the efforts of teachers and support staff. She recalled state schools Superintendent Eric Mackey telling educators this would be the hardest school year they had ever faced.
“It truly has been, and we can’t say enough about the hard work that our teachers have put in, and our administrators and our bus drivers, cafeteria staff,” she said. “Everybody has contributed to doing the best that we can under the circumstances.”