Photo by Ben Mullins on Unsplash Photo by Ben Mullins on Unsplash

Students attending Virginia Beach Public Schools will not be graded on their academic performance for the final quarter of the school year. 

The announcement from the schools’ superintendent, Dr. Aaron Spence, doesn’t mean that students can slack off in the final quarter of the school year though. To move on to the next grade level, students need to continue to participate in lessons and submit their assignments. 

When Gov. Ralph Northam closed schools in March, Virginia Beach Public Schools made the transition to online learning and tried to make it a smooth one for teachers, students and their families. But school means more than a desk and No. 2 pencils.

“Our Emergency Learning Plan is not in any way designed to replace the face-to-face instruction of the classroom,” Sondra Woodward, who works as public relations coordinator for Virginia Beach Public Schools, said in an interview with Dogwood. “It is, instead, designed to address essential standards, while at the same time giving serious consideration to equity and access, so that we provide learning experiences for all students, regardless of circumstances. Our teachers remain flexible, supportive and understanding throughout these remaining weeks of the school year, ensuring all students continue to engage in learning and complete the required assignments to be successful the following year.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 14% of children ages 3-18 don’t have access to the internet at home, about 9.4 million children in total. To make matters worse, the typical ways around not having internet access at home, like visiting a local public library, or setting up in a coffee shop, aren’t available due to the shut down. 

The digital divide between students who do or do not have internet access shows a disproportionate effect on students of color. According to USAFacts, 37% of American Indian and Alaska Native students, 19% of black students and 17% of Hispanic students lack access to the internet. Only 12% of white and Asian children have the same lack of access. 

That divide, along with other challenges like access to a quiet work space, unreliable access to food that was previously provided by schools, and differing abilities create a real barrier to equal education for students during the pandemic. 

Some schools have even experienced other issues with their online learning systems. For instance, Fairfax County Public Schools were subject to online harassment and disruption that included messages with racist and homophobic content. It got so bad the school system had to cancel online learning for some time so experts could address the issue. 

According to Woodward, the district did not experience any issues like those in Fairfax County with their online educational system. The school district considered other factors when it made the decision to suspend grades for the fourth quarter.

“Grading is supposed to reflect reaching and subsequent learning, not circumstances beyond the child’s control,” Spence said in an op-ed with the Virginian-Pilot. “Without dedicated time in our classrooms and daily access to all of the services that a school and the division offer our students would be graded based on their access to technology, the internet, food and housing, stable home environment, their ableism and the language they speak, but not what’s important: their ability to learn.”

Spence also noted that grading students isn’t always the best motivational tool. 

“Grades typically motivate only a small percentage of students,” he said. “For others, they are viewed as punitive and demotivating.”

Spence went on to note that consistent feedback on students’ work and specific praise for what is done well motivates students better. Students are expected to continue to participate in online lessons and submit their assignments as if they were to be graded to continue on to the next grade level next fall. 

Woodward noted that the decision to reopen schools next fall will ultimately be made by the state Department of Education and the governor but, she said, no matter the situation, “learning will continue.”

Spence said that although teachers and schools alike are doing their best to prepare students for their next academic year, they are also planning to do certain amounts of re-teaching of material and any concepts that prove difficult for students. 

“Even with all our best efforts, when school reopens, I have no doubt that we will have a heavy lift,” he said. “We may have to adjust the school calendar [but] these are things I am confident that we can deal with successfully when things get back to normal.”