A classroom is set up for the fall semester at Middletown High School. There will be an empty desk between two students. High school students will have to carry their desk shield assigned to them when moving to another class and submit it at the end of the day for sanitization. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org
A classroom is set up for the fall semester at Middletown High School. There will be an empty desk between two students. High school students will have to carry their desk shield assigned to them when moving to another class and submit it at the end of the day for sanitization. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Research released Monday confirms what many parents and educators already suspected — more students than ever are falling behind during the pandemic, a problem especially present among those learning entirely from home in some of the state’s larger districts.

The RISE Network tracked about 12,000 students in nine high schools in historically struggling districts to find out how many are in danger of being held back after failing at least two courses during the first marking period of this school year. The high schools included in the RISE analysis are in East Hartford, Hartford, Manchester, Middletown, Norwalk, Naugatuck and two schools in Meriden. Since the analysis includes only schools where parents were given the opportunity to enroll in-person or entirely remote, the report does not explore how many students in New Haven, which was entirely remote the first semester, fell behind.

The finding: The percentage of students in those schools in danger of failing has doubled since last year. This school year, 33% of students are not on track to progress to the next grade, compared to 15% last year.

“This requires urgent attention,” the RISE report concludes. “Across the board, fewer students were passing the number of courses they need to promote this year than their counterparts last year. Although much more research is needed to fully estimate and understand the impact of the pandemic on student outcomes, there are, unsurprisingly, clear signs already that student achievement is suffering this year.”

The analysis reveals which groups of students are falling behind the most. Among the students attending school entirely online, 46% failed at least two courses compared to 26% of those attending class partially in-person and from home.

Students who didn’t have attendance issues before the pandemic were significantly less likely to opt to learn entirely from home than those who were chronically absent before the pandemic — 34% vs. 50%.

The analysis also showed that learning entirely remotely — and not a student’s past academic or attendance performance — was the primary reason for students failing classes this year.

“We can’t simply say the struggling students picked remote and that’s why remote students are struggling more. So that was a really important finding and an important moment to realize that if we don’t act upon the data, we are going to be widening and creating new gaps,” said Emily Pallin, the leader of RISE, a philanthropic effort started years ago by billionaire Barbara Dalio to help at-risk students graduate from high school and progress to college or a career.

Failing two or more courses is especially problematic this year, said Pallin, since schools are stretched thin while many educators simultaneously operate two different learning models. In many schools, fewer classes are being offered.

“Some of these students may need to pass all of their classes to promote, or they may need to take additional courses in upcoming years to make up for being under-scheduled this year,” she said.

The report also shows stark differences in which groups of students took the opportunity to attend school in-person.

Black and Latino students stayed home at twice the rate as white students. English language learners were just as likely to stay home as their peers,  but students with disabilities were more likely to learn entirely from home.

“ELL students may have been more likely to choose hybrid learning due to difficulty accessing language accommodations remotely … The higher proportions of special education students who chose remote learning is a concerning trend given the complexity of providing special education accommodations remotely,” the report states.

A screen grab of a Tween from East Hartford High School

In an effort to get students back on track and not have this year become a lost school year, districts have begun to ramp up new initiatives.

In Meriden, some students are offered Saturday tutor sessions. In East Hartford, students meet with teacher to set goals to get them on-track. In Hartford, students celebrate staying on track by earning T-shirts boasting the hard work they accomplished during a pandemic, and teachers strategize each week about how to engage students learning remotely. In Middletown, a group of teachers spend Wednesdays knocking on the doors of students who aren’t logging on regularly.

“This can’t be a lost year,” said Pallin. “Teachers are doing everything to make sure students stay on track.”

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

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