Pandemic takes academic toll on Greater Grand Forks students

Grand Forks and East Grand Forks students are navigating technical difficulties, pandemic fatigue and immense stress at home and at school in addition to their regular coursework, which they are frequently expected to learn without a teacher in the room. The result is an increase in the number of failing first-quarter grades.

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This is a stock image of distance learning, purchased from iStock images for use by the Grand Forks Herald. (Credit: Jovanmandic)

The number of East Grand Forks students who received failing first-quarter grades increased 73% at Central Middle School compared to fall 2019 and 48% at East Grand Forks Senior High School.

Administrators in the Grand Forks Public School District are bracing for a similar dip, though they caution it's too soon to fairly declare the pandemic's academic impact on students, since grades for the 600 Grand Forks students who opted into distance learning this year won't be posted until mid-January. First-quarter grades for students in face-to-face learning models provided to the Herald show a slight decrease in the number of As and Bs during the first quarter compared to last fall and an increase in the number of Cs, Ds and Fs.

Both districts expected the drop in grade point averages. Districts across the United States are reporting similar trends as the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic upends learning models and puts immense stress on students, often at both home and school.

Suraya Driscoll, the director of teaching and learning for the East Grand Forks School District, said much of the district's work this semester has focused on reaching the students at the highest risk of falling through the cracks.

"They look through who's failing, who's barely making it, who's passing," Driscoll said. "They look at those timelines of those kids, and then they start by talking to the student, and then they start with a phone call to the parents."


Last spring, before the pandemic, the East Grand Forks School District began assembling teams of counselors and student success coaches to reach out to students in need. This year, those newly formed teams hit the ground running, working to identify struggling students, connect with them and create success plans.

But Student Success Coach Alex Reed has said that with middle and high school students only attending in-person classes every other day under the hybrid model, and now with full-time distance learning districtwide, getting to know students and recognizing when someone is struggling has been difficult. Last week, the success coaches began conducting home visits. Driscoll expects these will be a more regular occurrence as they work to understand why students are struggling this year.

"Is it a connectivity issue? You're trying to figure out what the problem is here," she said. "Is it that they're just not attending? Is it that they don't know how to navigate the system, you know, the Google Classroom? What is causing the gap? Is it that they just don't understand the information, and it requires a reteach?"

On the Grand Forks side of the Red River, social workers and counselors have been conducting home visits since the beginning of the year. Catherine Gillach, assistant superintendent for secondary education, said social workers and counselors meeting students in their homes or over Zoom conferences have looked for the same thing: whether students are struggling with attending Zoom classes, navigating technical difficulties or understanding their coursework.

After nearly a semester of home visits, Gillach said the teams have found that there's no one answer for every student, and different students are finding difficulties in different areas.

"For many of our high school students, that (hybrid) schedule has actually worked quite well, and they have found a high success or even more success than a typical model, but, for some students who really, really benefit from that daily, immediate feedback and support of their teachers, we've seen more students struggling when they only have access every other day," she said. "Come semester time, we'll have the ability to disaggregate our data and see if it affected students earning credits and that sort of thing, but it's a little early for us to really see if any of our concerns come to fruition."

Driscoll said one of her concerns is how students from historically underprivileged backgrounds are doing this year. Neither district was able to provide grade data regarding students from some of those populations, such as students from lower socioeconomic background, students from racial minority groups and students with special needs. Both administrators said their districts are working to put a system to track those students' academic performance in place and hope to have data available by the second semester.

Until then, Driscoll said the East Grand Forks district is leaning heavily on the work of their student success coaches. She said Deka Ali, the district's bilingual coordinator, has spent the semester working to connect with students and families whose English might be limited, and Erica Gunville, the district's newly hired American Indian engagement specialist, has spent her first weeks checking in with every Indigenous family in the district.


Gillach added that, thanks to a $200,000 grant from the Governor's Emergency Education Relief Fund, Grand Forks Public Schools also intends to open a Mentor Center during the second semester to reach students in both in-person and distance learning models. Through the funding, three certified teachers will be hired to staff the mentor center, as well as a number of mental health professionals to help students with whatever challenges they might be facing.

Driscoll said that the greatest help to students' academic performance would be for COVID-19 cases to be contained enough that students could return to in-person learning and continue the school year without disruption. But she predicted that, as students continue to play catch-up throughout this year, great importance will be placed on after-school and summer programming.

Still, she said she's confident in students' resilience.

"I go back to the time of the flood, where we had kids kind of spread out all over," she said. "I really think, when we've reunited and brought some of those kids back, about how resilient kids are and families, and we were there to support them then, and we will be there to support them now."

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