Social isolation taking toll on students in Easthampton

  • Pepin School in Easthampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Students outside Easthampton High School GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/17/2021 9:28:51 PM

EASTHAMPTON — As Easthampton Public Schools near the one-year mark of almost entirely remote learning, more students at the high school — many of whom fall into more vulnerable groups — are failing classes and citing social isolation as a major struggle in their education.

At a Tuesday night School Committee meeting, administrators from the city’s public schools gave progress reports on metrics such as student attendance and grades. While unexcused absences have remained low across the schools, largely due to more absences being accepted as excused, Easthampton High School Principal Bill Evans reported that the number of students failing at least one class rose from 6% in fall 2019 to 16% during this same period in 2020.

“The biggest thing is that there’s clearly an increase in the number of students who are struggling,” Evans told the Gazette, “and that increase is disproportionately represented in our economically disadvantaged and students with disabilities population, and to a lesser extent, our students of color.”

Of the students failing at least one class, 63% are economically disadvantaged, 48% have a disability and 22% are students of color. In the overall student population at the high school, 38% are economically disadvantaged, 29% have a disability and 19% are students of color. Nationally, students from these demographics in particular have faced increased barriers to remote learning.

Easthampton students are not the only ones to struggle with remote learning. In December, the Associated Press reported that school districts across the country have reported that as many as two or three times more students are failing classes.

According to Evans, the link between remote learning and increased student difficulties is clear. In a survey administered in December, students said that the two most common difficulties they encounter are lack of face-to-face interaction with teachers and their peers, with many students also reporting low levels of motivation.

Since schools were first ordered to shift to remote learning in March 2020, only kindergartners and high need students, such as those with learning disabilities or students who are homeless, were allowed to return to in-person learning for a time. The general student population was set to begin a phased-in return later in the fall, but due to an uptick in COVID-19 cases around the state and in local communities, the schools reverted to an entirely remote basis in November.

Easthampton Public Schools Superintendent Allison LeClair agreed that remote learning is driving students grades down.

“I think that our educators are doing a fabulous job,” LeClair said. “I think that families are doing a great job, as are our students. But remote learning is not the same as in-person learning. The goal is to get students back in the building.”

Students at other schools in the district are not struggling to the degree of students at the high school, according to LeClair, which she believes may be due to parents having more oversight over the education of their young children.

But at the moment, the district does not have a target return date in mind due to high levels of COVID-19 in the community. The state designated Easthampton a high risk community for COVID-19 transmission earlier this month, and as of this week’s report, the city remains within this group.

Excused absences have risen significantly — from around 200 in fall 2019 to over 1,000 last fall — due to the school accepting issues such as connectivity problems, mental health issues, students or their family members testing positive for COVID-19, and economic issues as basis for an excused absence.

In an effort to accommodate students who are failing at least one class, the school has offered new opportunities to raise grades, such as allowing students to take an incomplete and use extra time to bring their grade above a 60; makeup plans during holiday break; and allowing students to pass a course if they can pass the final exam.

Additionally, “Teachers are continuing to take part in professional development, which has been really focused on technology this year,” LeClair said. “We’re also looking forward to bring our special populations in when we can, even if that’s just for services, and not necessarily for classes.”

The district is also looking into establishing remote learning centers for students struggling the most at each grade level, LeClair added.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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