DONNA, Texas (KVEO) — The pandemic has affected many aspects of our everyday lives, including how students learn. Schools across the country implemented online learning, and now students are failing at a higher rate.
Taylor Seaber, a student at Donna High School, moved to virtual learning at the start of the pandemic and will be finishing out her senior year through a computer screen.
“I’ve kind of mentally prepared myself for it,” she said. “I keep telling myself ‘eventually it’s going to go back to normal’. So, I’m kind of having a little bit of a positive attitude toward it.”
As the only child at home, she said the distractions haven’t been too bad, but not having hands-on learning for certain subjects has been the greatest challenge.
“That’s the best way I do it, to get it out of the way, I do the hardest things first,” she said. “So math is something I’m prioritizing a lot more other than the other subjects I know I’ll just do good at.”
Taylor is on track for graduation and planning to go to college. However, throughout the country, rates of students failing are surging.
“We’ve seen a decline when it comes to where we want our students to be as far as reading levels and math levels,” said Donna ISD Superintendent Dr. Hafedh Azaiez. “It’s not where we want it to be; it’s not like where we are used to have them.”
At Donna ISD about 15% of students are back on campus for traditional learning.
Dr. Azaiez said the failure rates are highest among high schoolers, but it’s mostly elementary students returning, which he’s happy to see.
“Our elementary, especially lower grades, if they fail a year or two years behind and they’re not reading on or above grade level by third grade, that may be a problem the student carries for many more years,” he said.
Donna had to rush to move to virtual learning at the start of the pandemic and worked quickly to get each student a Chromebook or iPad and set up Wi-Fi towers.
“This year has been a lot, lot better in terms of resources, in terms of preparation, accessibility,” he said.
It’s not only students falling behind or with connectivity issues returning.
“Many are missing social interaction with their peers, with their teachers, close proximity face to face,” said Dr. Azaiez.
Apart from falling behind, children are facing other problems.
“We’ve seen a terrible trend in teen suicides and mental health issues, depression, anxiety,” said Laura Lyles Reagan. “It’s affected all walks of life because of isolation.”
Sociologist and parent-relationship coach Laura Reagan says the pandemic has further accelerated the already increasing trend.
“I think the fast pace of society, lack of involvement in other relationships is a really major issue,” she said.
Reagan says having quality relationships reduces the risk of suicide – whether that’s through returning to school or finding other ways.
“Having phone calls, video chats with family, eating outside — that can be such a wonderful healer because you’re not just stuck on screens all day — limiting screen times,” she said.
While more students are failing, she believes they can always catch up.
“From a sociological point of view, education happens your entire life,” she said. “You’re a lifelong learner and if you’re delayed by a year, then you look at that over the long run. And education happens in multiple ways.”
As more vaccines are administered, Dr. Azaiez is feeling optimistic.
“We can resume the normal way of delivering instruction and having extracurricular activities and making it what it’s supposed to be — learning and fun at the same time for our students,” he said, adding the district is already planning workshops to bring students up to speed.
“We’ll have them for maybe three hours doing a lot of reading and writing and another three hours of math,” he said. “The idea is to see where they’re at —do some prescreening and see where they’re at — look at what gaps they may have and work on those gaps to fix them.”
In her final months of high school, Taylor is looking forward to relaxing a bit ahead of starting college, by which time she hopeful for an in-person learning opportunity.
For students still struggling online, she shares what’s helped her.
“Having due dates down — assignments down — having a to-do list every day,” she said. “Having structure because I think that’s what we’re missing: structure. So, if we have more structure in our life I think it will go a lot more smooth.”