Failing Grade Spike With Remote Learning in Virginia’s Largest School System: Report

November 24, 2020 Updated: November 24, 2020

Failing grades among middle and high school students spending the first quarter of the 2020–21 school year learning remotely are up more than 80 percent compared to last year, a new report (pdf) from Virginia’s largest public school system shows.

Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), which serves more than 188,000 students with nearly 200 schools, began the 2020–21 school year with virtual learning for all students on September 8. Throughout the first quarter, which ended October 20, only a handful of special needs students returned to in-person classes.

According to the district’s analysis, all student groups showed increases in the percentage of “F” marks received during Q1 of the current year as compared to the prior year, indicating that more students were failing courses during the primarily virtual instruction period than had occurred when instruction was delivered in-person.

The increase in the percentage of students failing two or more classes is particularly high in Hispanic students (92 percent), Asian students (100 percent), and students whose first language isn’t English (106 percent). The amount of increase is lowest among white students (67 percent) and black students (63 percent).

“The pattern was pervasive across all student groups, grade levels, and content areas examined in this report,” the FCPS report reads. “The trend of more failing marks is concerning across the board but is especially concerning for the groups that showed the biggest unpredicted increases in receiving multiple unsatisfactory marks.”

Earlier this year, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called out Fairfax County, criticizing the school system for not opening its schools five days a week. The reopening plan at that time allowed families to choose between full-time virtual learning and a hybrid model, in which students go to school two days per week for in-person learning and spend the rest of the week learning remotely at home.

“Fairfax County, which is one of the most well-funded, I would call it an elite public school system in America, offered families a so called ‘choice’ for this fall: either zero days in school for their students or two days. And their springtime attempt at distance learning was a disaster,” DeVos said during a press briefing in July.

“I give this as an example because things like this cannot happen again in the fall,” DeVos said. “It would fail America’s students, and it would fail taxpayers who pay high taxes for their education.”

Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, which represents some 700 FCPS employees, has fought persistently against the call for a normal return to school. In October, the teachers’ union demanded FCPS to delay the reopening plan, saying that its members overwhelmingly felt uncomfortable returning for in-person classes.