The Wausau School District tonight (Monday) will decide whether or not to reopen their schools to full, four days per week in-person learning. The proposal comes on the heels of data that students are getting Fs at alarming rates in the Wausau School District.
How are other districts doing? And how are they approaching COVID-19 and opening schools? City Pages reached out to Stevens Point Area Public School District, Mosinee School District and D.C. Everest School District. Each had slightly different learning modalities so each represents a small part of the overall picture of what student learning looks like in COVID and how it impacted each.
It’s important to keep in mind that this is still a small sampling, from a data standpoint. And, one must be careful not to confuse correlation with causation. Because ice cream consumption and murder rates seem to increase together, doesn’t mean ice cream consumption causes murders. (Yes, this is a real correlation!)
City Pages did its best to get the data that best matched up with how the Wausau School District presented its data in January. Not every school measured or presented information in the same way, but as much as City Pages could get similar data, it did.
With that in mind, here is what City Pages found.
Stevens Point Area Public School District returned in the fall in a hybrid fashion similar to what D.C. Everest did. Those choosing in-person learning had two days in person, and two days at home. Those opting for flexible e-learning completed their schooling at home virtually.
Halfway through the first quarter at Stevens Point’s secondary schools, 20% of the student body had failing grades. It was slightly higher at SPASH, where 23% of students had failing grades; in Stevens Point’s junior high, only 17% of students had failing grades.
Flexible e-learners fared far worse. Of those students, 31.5% had at least one F in that first quarter.
(City Pages asked that same parsing between e-learners and in-person be provided by the Wausau School District, but the fluid nature of virtual or in person choice — parents could switch back and forth between the two — made it hard to provide accurate data.)
Stevens Point offered options mid-quarter to improve grades, as the district identified the increase in students getting Fs, says SPAPSD Communications Director Sarah O’Donnell told City Pages. By the end of the first quarter, only 14% still had failing grades. The biggest improvements came from those in person, whose numbers of students with failing grades dropped to 10%. Flexible e-learners dropped too, but only to 28%.
SPASH seems to differ from Wausau in that COVID seems to have impacted those struggling the most. Where drops in academic achievement seem to have happened somewhat across the board, at Stevens Point O’Donnell says it was two extremes: High achieving students stayed high achieving but those who struggled really struggled.
“We are seeing As and Fs, and not many in-between grades,” O’Donnell says.
The number of high school students at D.C. Everest who had failing grades this year was the highest it has been in the three years provided to City Pages upon request. So far 196 students received failing grades in the first semester of the 2020-2021 school year. That is a big increase from the previous semester when only 97 students were receiving failing grades.
The first semester of 2018-2019, however, saw 168 students with failing grades, which is somewhat closer.
Assistant Superintendent of Learning Casey Nye told City Pages that a more accurate count is coming as many students have incompletes but are in the process of making up those grades.
Nye says D.C. Everest was on a great trajectory for student achievement before the pandemic hit. But, staff learned a lot during the pandemic and plan to implement what they’ve learned when students return to full-time, in-person learning post-pandemic.
Nye told City Pages he didn’t think it was possible to separate COVID from the modality of learning — they’re both related. Staff were severely stretched to deal with what is essentially hundreds of different learning environments (meaning, children’s various homes during the virtual portion of the hybrid model). But he’s proud of staff and how they’ve risen to the challenge during the pandemic.
And, the school has between 800-1,000 students enrolled in the D.C. Everest Virtual Academy.
Mosinee Superintendent David Munoz told City Pages that secondary schools, junior high and high school, saw “some increase in failure rates,” and says things improved a lot for e-learners after November 2020. Munoz refused to provide actual data around numbers of failures and how they might have improved, however.
Munoz did say that transmission rates remained very low, under 1%, at Mosinee schools, with no spikes even around Thanksgiving or Christmas.
The data Wausau presented
Although presented in numbers instead of percentages, the data presented by Wausau administrators to the Wausau School Board last month was pretty similar. According to the data, 320 high school students had at least one failing grade as of the first semester of 2019-2020. That number nearly doubled in the first quarter of 2020-2021, with 623 high school students holding at least one F grade.
In middle school, which City Pages didn’t look at from other schools, the increase was worse. Only 94 middle school students had at least one failing grade in the first semester of 2019-2020. That jumped to 421 in the first semester of 2020-2021, according to the data presented.
Another interesting piece of data that Wausau shared: Numbers of Fs in the first quarter versus that number in the semester as a whole. The numbers dropped quite a bit from the first quarter of this school year to the first semester, from 2,464 Fs to 1,962. Data from first quarter and semester of 2019-2020 shows that drop is not unexpected, likely due to students being given options to raise their grades. And with more Fs, it stands to reason that more students would be interested in making up those grades (or more parents, shocked to see an F, demanded their students get on it).
The school district is implementing a number of ways for students to bring up grades before that F is solidified, says Communications Director Diana White. The district is expected to implement a more robust summer school program, for instance.
Wausau School District was unique in that, unlike any other district nearby (but similar to several larger districts around the state) it began the 2020-2021 school year in virtual mode. Only on Nov. 1 did it transition to a hybrid model similar to many other larger districts such as Stevens Point or D.C. Everest used at the beginning of the school year.
It would be irresponsible to conclude confidently that the change in modality affected the grading percentages. However, the evidence does seem to point in that direction. The data seems to point to a correlation toward in-person learning and better, or at least less worse, student achievement. No school seemed to be immune to the impacts of COVID — even Mosinee.
There are also anomalies in the data — why did Wausau experience trouble across the board, with all students struggling from A students on down, where SPASH saw a major divide, in which good students stayed good students while struggling students struggled even more?
The Wausau School Board will decide during a special meeting tonight whether to open up secondary schools (middle schools and high schools) fully for four days per week. Right now middle schools and high schools in the Wausau School District are open on a hybrid basis – students attend in person two days per week and learn from home two days per week. The proposal would have all students returning to class four days per week.
But that also most likely means that students would be unable to follow the rule about maintaining six feet of social distancing — it might be closer to three feet.
If approved, that new change would start March 1.
The meeting is tonight at the Wausau East Auditorium.