The big cost of learning online: The number of Maryland students who are failing has soared during the pandemic

Failing grades have doubled — and sometimes tripled — in school systems across Maryland as the prolonged effects of learning from home take their toll on student achievement and well-being.

Second-quarter data from Baltimore-area school systems offers a bleak portrait of the state of student learning during the pandemic.

In Baltimore and Baltimore County together, more than 10,000 middle school students are failing English. In Anne Arundel County, 61% of high school students have a GPA of less than 2.0. Statewide, high school failure rates have doubled in 11 school systems in English and 13 systems in math since last year.

While students across a wide range have experienced academic losses, those struggling before the pandemic are most likely to experience the greatest academic failures. For instance, two-thirds of the state’s homeless ninth graders aren’t passing this year, according to state statistics.

Driving the failure rates is a simple fact: Attendance has plummeted since students had to turn to learning online, and teachers say too often their students appear disengaged. They turn off the cameras on their laptops so they can’t be seen, or leave their assignments undone.

Failure rates aren’t escalating only in Maryland; school districts from Chicago to Broward County, Florida, and Las Vegas have reported students falling behind, and experts say it could take years to make up the ground that has been lost.

While school leaders still don’t know the long-term consequences, Baltimore City CEO Sonja Santelises said the system is planning a collection of interventions over the next two years that will include intensive tutoring and summer school but could also include ways to re-imagine school.

“I am still optimistic in the coming years we will be able to meet kids’ needs, but at the same time … I am humbled by the significance of students struggling online,” said John Davis, the Baltimore system’s chief of schools.

Given that attendance dropped significantly, he said, the school system is working to try to get students back into school. A mobile van visits neighborhoods, making school system staff available to answer student and parent questions or troubleshoot problems. The system has tracked students who are struggling academically and is targeting them for academic help.

Attendance dropped during the second quarter in nearly every school system in the Baltimore area. In Baltimore County, the average daily attendance was 80%, and 56% for economically disadvantaged students. On an average day, a third of all high school students are not showing up. In 2019, attendance for all students in the county was 93.5%.

“We are experiencing the same pattern as elsewhere,” said Mary McComas, Baltimore County’s chief academic officer. “The failure is alarming and concerning.”

Many of the failures, she said, are the result of students not turning in assignments because they were having difficulty staying organized. A classroom teacher, McComas said, can look at a student’s bulging, disorganized binder and know when they have to intervene, but that can’t happen when students are learning on computers.

“Their whole learning world is different,” she said. Teachers are now trying to make adjustments.

Even usually motivated students say they are having difficulty remaining focused on their schoolwork.

Katelynn Thrasher, a Sparrows Point High School student, said she usually earns A and B grades, but this year her marks have plummeted as she felt trapped inside without friends for months.

“I am doing way worse than usual,” she said. Much of the decline she attributes to the lack of interaction with people. “I do have old friends, but they are not people I talk to anymore because of the pandemic,” she said. “We have drifted apart.”

Students and teachers have described the online classroom — which is still where most Baltimore area students are learning — as one with a teacher staring at a computer screen that contains a few faces, but mostly black boxes with student names on them. Few students are turning on their cameras to allow themselves to be seen by other students and the teacher. School systems are not requiring students to show their faces because some families don’t want their homes to be seen in the background.

“The kids are saying, we are not going to allow you the pleasure of knowing us as people. So teachers have had an uphill climb to get to know their students,” said Annette C. Anderson, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.

Such an environment, she said, doesn’t allow teachers to give students the benefit of the doubt. If you never meet your student, you may be disconnected from their struggle to hold down a job and take care of a sibling while trying to get their homework done. You can only judge them on the work they turn in, she said, adding that there is no room for grace.

If so many students are failing, she said, it suggests “that we need to rethink the system we are using.”

Nearly a third of middle schoolers and more than 35% of high school students in Harford County Public Schools had at least one failing grade in the second quarter of the current school year.

In Carroll County, the number of failing grades tripled across the school system in the second quarter compared with the year before. The school system said students learning remotely had done better academically than those in hybrid classes who are learning remotely and in-person.

And in the city, 61% of middle and high school students were failing at least one course during the second quarter.

In Anne Arundel County failure rates doubled from 3% to 7% for the county overall, but those rates mask much deeper problems for some students. About a quarter of English language learners, special education students and those who are economically disadvantaged were failing at least one class.

A small percentage of students have liked learning remotely during the pandemic. In Anne Arundel County, for instance, more students earned A’s than the year before, but their achievement was overshadowed by the larger numbers of students traditionally earning C’s whose grades have dropped.

Vivi Rupenthal is a 16-year-old student at the George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson. While her grades have not been bad, Rupenthal was an A student before the pandemic and now is earning B’s.

The simplest assignments and chores require enormous energy, she said.

“You just kind of wake up and say, “Ugh.” It is the same day again. It is crushing. You wake up and live the same day you have been living.”

She finds herself getting out of bed minutes before the first-period class and not having motivation to do homework.

“I feel like I haven’t learned a whole lot this year,” she said, adding that she can’t even remember the coursework that seemed to go by in a dull march toward the end of the semester. “I think adults don’t see the toll it takes on us.”

In Baltimore County, failure rates grew quickly in elementary reading courses. In the second quarter of last year, 467 students were failing, but this year 902 were.

Statistically, students who fail classes are more likely to eventually drop out of school, but because the pandemic was so unusual it is unclear what the longer-term effects will be. Davis said the school system has been working to connect with students who have been out of school for a long time.

Education experts are now debating how to help students recover from the pandemic, but McComas said research suggests filling student holes in knowledge as teachers move through the curriculum, rather than doing a lot of review. “I think kids are more resilient than we realize. I think more instruction and learning has happened than we realize,” she said.

Thrasher, the Sparrows Point student, said going back to school April 12 gave her a lift and she is hoping for a big improvement in learning.

“I will be out of the house and have social interaction, and I will be in front of a teacher. Hopefully, everything will be better.”

Baltimore Sun Media reporters David Anderson and Kristen Griffith contributed to this article.