As we deal with the consequences of a worldwide pandemic, the need for connectivity of some sort is imperative. In fact, one wonders if this global self-quarantine policy would have been attempted had there been no Internet in place. Alas, the vast majority of the modern world has no choice but to plug into the World Wide Web to conduct business, sing Happy Birthdays, and have some sort of semblance of education and schooling.
The school district that has employed me for almost 30 years has been at the forefront of incorporating technology into our classrooms and curricula. At my school site, every student has a ChromeBook assigned for their personal use throughout the year along with access to “Schoology,” an online platform for communicating safely with our students. Assignments are given, videos are shared, virtual discussions are conducted, along with many more digital activities geared toward academic achievement within the Schoology environment. All teachers in all subject areas have been supplementing their classroom teaching with this new frontier approach with no major issues to speak of, technical or otherwise.
Enter March 2020 and the most significant event to confound American students since the Civil War.
Friday, March 13 was our last day in the classroom as our students were told to retreat to their homes for their own safety and that of their families. Our curriculum would shift by necessity from a hybrid traditional/digital model to a complete distance-learning model.
For many teachers (myself included), this truly was a new frontier, one forced upon us with no alternative. Our principal wisely suggested to keep our students accountable but also to be flexible, acknowledging that the circumstances for the vast majority of our lower income students would be less than ideal for learning. Give a bit less work, provide more time and generate online versions of our assignments. We were all being dragged out into uncharted waters for the purpose of protecting lives.
The Harm in “Held Harmless”
As I describe my experience with a digital distance learning model, it is important to remember all of our students already had the tools for success in place. They all had assigned ChromeBooks as well as mobile hotspots for home, if necessary. They also had previous experience with our online academic platform of Schoology and not just for months but, for most students from our district, years. I admit my students most likely felt much more comfortable transitioning to a purely digital classroom than I did conducting one. All of the tools for a seamless transition into a pandemic-safe education had been put in place years ago. Now was the time to utilize them to their fullest.
Schoology creates a time stamp for every submitted assignment online, making it convenient to see which students turned in their assignment on time or late or not at all. Two weeks into our pandemic schooling, my first major assignment was due for 130 students with digital messages sent out to remind all of their deadline. Out of 130 students enrolled in four of my classes, I had only 82 submit their work on time for a submission rate of 63 percent.
Upon seeing these numbers I had thought I had made some sort of mistake as this was much lower than the usual 80 percent submission rate on a typical school day. I reached out to our district’s IT department, the dinosaur teacher’s best friend, to help me access the login data of my students in Schoology. My working theory had been that, because of the shutdown, my students did not have access to Schoology at home and this was skewing my numbers. Upon examining the analytics, however, I was shocked.
Of the 48 students who did not submit this assignment, one student had never logged into Schoology at all. One other student had last logged into Schoology two weeks earlier, meaning this student may or may not have online access from home since it had been less than two weeks since the shutdown.
The remaining 46 students who did not submit the assignment had logged in within the past week, meaning they definitely had access to Schoology from home. This meant they had access to the same assignment descriptions, updates, and messages as everyone else. They were, for whatever reason, ghosting me.
Well, let’s take the personal out of this. These 46 students were ghosting their education.
I had another assignment due the following week. This time I also uploaded video explanations, hoping this would increase student participation. I sent reminders to all 130 and personal reminder messages to my ghosting 48. My submission rate dropped to 62 percent. I extended the deadline for the next assignment a bit, hoping this would have an impact. My submission rate dropped further, to 45 percent. The next week, the submission rate made a slight but pathetic rally to all of 46 percent.
As my numbers dwindled, my school district and teachers’ union negotiated the terms of both student and teacher expectations for the remainder of this school year. On April 21, the memorandum of understanding (MOU) was announced. The grades of our students would be “held harmless,” meaning they would not receive a lower grade in each class than what they had earned at their 3rd quarter progress report. The end of the year semester grade would transition from the traditional A-F letter grade to a credit/no credit situation with credit being awarded for earning anything from an A through a D. Students could petition the school to be assessed using the traditional letter grade system instead of credit/no credit if they desired. Students could improve their grades if they participated in distance learning beginning March 16. Any assignments not submitted during the lockdown could not be entered as a zero since that would negatively impact their grade.
When I read the MOU and saw what little it asks of students, my heart sank. Suddenly, all of my 48 ghosts (and growing) were right and I was wrong. There was no reason to do any of the tasks I had assigned. In fact, just the opposite. The MOU had now incentivized their ghosting. For example, let’s say a student has a 90 percent in any given class and on an important assignment earns an 89 percent. In non-pandemic times, the updated overall grade would drop to a B+ but in this Brave New Pandemic World, the 89 percent assignment would have to be deleted to prevent it from harming the student’s grade.
If there is a risk of doing assigned work only to have it harm your grade, then why do the work? Besides, there was no reason in the first place for doing the assignment from the student’s point of view. The 90 percent already translates to an A for the class. Why devote time studying or working on an assignment if the A is already a done deal? For the love of knowledge?
Very few people, let alone hormone-barraged teenagers are motivated by such noble ideals, especially when TikTok and Fortnite are just a tap away.
Straight A’s for Everyone?
My experience with distance learning is not an isolated case. Other teachers at my school were sharing privately with me submission numbers similar to mine. This concern was also being discussed online.
Education Week’s Peter DeWitt examined anecdotal evidence on Facebook to gather data on reasons students were not signing on to continue their studies. DeWitt’s six main reasons included lack of proper workspace at home, underdeveloped student-teacher relationships, having to take care of others, and being essential workers themselves. These four scenarios are undoubtedly occurring, but there is no way to know how they affect the academic availability of the students.
The other two reasons DeWitt shares deserve a closer inspection: no online access and no grade incentive. Recall 128 of my 130 students were able to access our online platform from home during the lockdown so internet access is not a factor for my economically distressed student body. Grade incentive is possibly the strongest ghost-generating factor in all of this. In a New York Times article titled “Should the Virus Mean Straight A’s For Everyone?,” Dana Goldstein writes that this question is being asked by school districts nationwide.
Seattle public schools decided to award either an A or an Incomplete to every high school student, noting “grades have historically rewarded students with privilege and penalized others.” New York City schools will continue to issue letter grades to their high schoolers with F grades reclassified as “In Progress.” Many districts, including Los Angeles Unified and my own, have adopted a “hold harmless” policy to grades, allowing high school students to improve their grades by engaging in their districts’ distance-learning program but not harming grades by freezing them to pre-lockdown levels. These grading policies are having predictable results. On March 30t, the Los Angeles Times reported almost 15,000 students were now ghosting the Los Angeles Unified School District.
A Failure of Education
It is odd that school districts are using the term “hold harmless” in describing their lockdown grading policies because it is clear their implemented policies are far from harmless. It is true the planet is staring down a life-threatening pandemic and we are all making important policy decisions on the fly; but it is also true that human nature does not take a vacation when self-quarantined.
School districts across the country are making it far too easy for students to ghost their academics. Many students continue to do the right thing and remain focused on their studies, even as they themselves deal with the hardship and strife involved in a COVID-19 world. These students are developing themselves into the type of people who can remain focused in a crisis, which will lead them to continued success later in life.
Crises are just a part of life. Everyone, no matter their ethnicity, gender, economic status, ZIP Code, or IQ will be exposed to some other trauma that also comes along with living.
The task of educators should be to guide students as we navigate these waters together with the expectation that successful outcomes can still be met with compassionate adjustments as needed. We do our students no favors by bubble wrapping their education.
This pandemic eventually will pass but work ethic, responsibility, and fortitude—qualities we strive to instill in our future generations—may disappear with it.