The COVID-19 slide: A closer look at students’ struggles learning through a pandemic

CHARLOTTE — Failing grades. Zoom fatigue. Since the start of pandemic and the decision by school districts to move to remote learning, the difficulties of schooling are being referred to as the “COVID-19 slide.”

Parents and educators are concerned that students are losing months of learning. They also worry about the social and emotional toll the pandemic is having on students.

Channel 9 education reporter Elsa Gillis sat down with six Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students, ranging from 8th to 12th grade, to talk about the unusual experience of learning during a pandemic. Five of the students are learning fully remotely this year. One will return to the classroom for in-person learning in March.

“I think teachers are doing all they can to have sessions after school and give tutoring, and all of that, but there’s only so much they can do online,” junior Stella Smolowitz said. “I just feel a lot of disconnect between me and my teachers compared to normal school.”

Senior Gabe Hammonds says it’s been a challenging year for him.

“I’ve been so overwhelmed by a lot of things … I’m also doing college applications, so that’s like another full-time job in itself,” he said.

“I’m just trying to make it through, so I’m doing my best to make sure I do all my work.”

According to Dr. Matthew Hayes, deputy superintendent of academics for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the number of students who are chronically absent and have failing grades has doubled when comparing last semester to the previous fall.

He’s optimistic the district can make up for the loss of learning but says it won’t happen overnight and will require community support.

“We know that there is going to be learning loss. We know that teachers have been asked to teach in a way that they haven’t been trained to do,” he said. “Students are being asked to learn in ways that may not be as productive for them.”

He says the district created a pandemic grading plan, giving students more time to turn in work, as well as offering more support and flexibility with grading.

“From a young age, we are always taught, grades matter, grades matter … they do matter to some extent, but we have to make sure it doesn’t attach to our identity,” Hammonds said.

“I try to say that grades are not evidence of academic success,” junior Breana Fowler said. “And so we are in a pandemic, there is a learning curve. The curriculum has to change as we are changing in the world. We cannot have the same expectations for our students and our teachers, as we would if they were normally in the class,” she said.

Fowler says she’s thrived learning remotely. She says looking back on last year, she felt like she was always was competing with peers.

“I felt a tremendous amount of pressure going to school,” she said. “And now ... I don’t really feel it.”

“I think it’s really going to take us making sure that we do a deep analysis of each student, where their gaps are,” Hayes said. “And then what are we going to do as far as create individualized plans to then address those learning gaps.”

He says the process has already started, and will continue both for younger students and for high school upperclassmen.

“I feel that I’m learning more skills that relate to school but aren’t exactly subjects,” student Darrell Holmes said. “For example, communication. That’s now very important. Since we’re not in school, you need to know what’s going on, what work you have.

“Also, time management. We have, well, assumingly, we have more free time since we’re not in school and we’re online. So you need to learn, at least for me, how to manage that time correctly and properly, so you can get all your work done. So those are the skills that I have been excelling in,” he said.

“I’ve learned how to adapt to these situations more, and how to make the best of it,” eighth grader Brooke Holmes said. “When you’re thinking about all the things that you’re missing out on, it can take a toll on you and unmotivate you, but you just have to keep going and know that’ll pay off in the long run,” she said.

“Nobody is happy with this pandemic, Smolowitz said. “Everybody is suffering, no matter what your age is. I think we all have to give each other a little bit more grace.”

“We’re going to have to be very careful as we see our students not only leave us, but move through their junior (and) senior years, that we’re making sure that they are ready to leave us as productive citizens,” Hayes said.

“Lean in with us on this, hold hands, and let’s lock arms and let’s do what we need to do for our students,” he said.