In-Depth Summary:

What was expected to last a couple of weeks turned into more than a year of virtual school for many students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Remote learning has proven to be detrimental to the mental, social and academic success of many children and sent the failure rate at local campuses soaring. The thought of getting them caught up is overwhelming, but teachers are rising to the challenge and creating ways to re-engage students who are struggling more than ever.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Weekday mornings are rough in the Mika household, but that’s expected with two teenagers under one roof. The lengthy wake-up process to pry Lucian, 14, and his sister out of bed starts at 7 a.m.

The unwelcome sound of their parents’ voices in their bedrooms at the bright and early hour typically leads to a successful departure for school between 7:45 and 8 a.m. Lucian emerges from his room with his hair still wet from a speedy shower and stuffs his lunchbox in his backpack right before stepping out the front door.

This routine is still fairly new for the siblings who spent months rolling out of bed and logging right onto the computer for their first class. Like most of their classmates, they had been doing virtual school from home since last March due to the pandemic.

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O. Henry Middle School student Lucian Mika, 14, attending his virtual Algebra I class (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

While online school may sound much more convenient, it wasn’t going well.

The decision made by Lucian’s parents to send him back to O. Henry Middle School boiled down to multiple failing grades, along with mounting physical and mental changes they noticed. It got to the point where the eighth-grader — who was normally an A and B student — didn’t want to get out of bed, and seemed less and less motivated to succeed. For Lucian, the day in and day out of online courses was boring and tedious.

“When I’m doing it at my house, it doesn’t feel like school at all,” Lucian said. “So I just don’t want to do it.”

Lucian’s best friend Emmett Mueller — also an eighth-grader at O. Henry in the Austin Independent School District — said he usually earns As and Bs, too. But he’s had two Cs on his report card this school year. He returned to campus with Lucian right after spring break.

“I felt very sleepy pretty much throughout all of my online school experience,” Emmett said. “And, distanced because there was really not much social interaction at all.”

The teens said it’s clear during live, online classes that many of their classmates seemed tuned out, too. As the tension rose between the boys and their parents, who continued pushing them to work harder, Emmett said he invited his mom to sit in on a virtual class to see the lack of engagement from students first hand.

He said none of the students had their cameras turned on, and when the teacher took attendance Emmett said maybe one student unmuted to say “here.”

Detrimental effect on grades

Data obtained by KXAN from nearly a dozen Central Texas school districts reinforces the teens’ concerns with pandemic learning. Every district that responded to our record requests showed an increase in students failing at least one class in the past year. In several districts, that failure rate doubled.

Hutto ISD’s rate of high school students failing at least one class jumped from 17% before the pandemic to 31% during it. At Hays CISD, that same rate of failures from the first semester of last year to this year’s ballooned from 28% to 44%. Wimberly ISD had a rate of just 1.3% of high school students failing a course in spring 2020; that climbed to 18.7% in the fall. No districts were immune, and they all acknowledged the unprecedented headwind students faced during the health crisis.

Hutto ISD said it recognized the “struggles” students were having and created unique schedules to allow them to make up courses. Hays CISD said the increase in failures were “significant,” and the pandemic’s impact on education has been “clear and telling.”

“It’s more difficult to learn online; it is harder to stay focused without a set schedule or routine when not at school; and the mental health aspect of being separated from friends and traditional school experiences is real and contributes to lowered motivation and energy,” Hays CISD said in a statement to KXAN.

KXAN obtained the failure rate data charted below through the Texas Public Information Act. The orange lines show middle school rates and black lines represent high school. KXAN filed the same request with each district, but some districts compiled their statistics using different timeframes. For example, Austin ISD provided data for consecutive school years, Dripping Springs ISD provided consecutive semesters and Lake Travis ISD provided comparable semesters for two school years. While the timeframes are not the exact same, each district’s chart provides a snapshot of failure rates before and after the pandemic began.

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The results are not a total surprise. Over the summer during the height of the pandemic, overwhelmed educators were bracing for the COVID-19 slide. Faced with navigating the new landscape of virtual learning, campuses and communities across the country came up with solutions to try to set families up for success as they entered the fall.

‘Can’t reach through my webcam’

Up the road from O. Henry, at AISD’s Anderson High School, teachers agree there is a disconnect with virtual learning.

“As much as I would like to sometimes, I can’t reach through my webcam, tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?'” said Meghan Swartz, a freshman English teacher at Anderson High.

Swartz said some students are thriving virtually, but many are not. She believes teachers and students missed a key step to academic success at the beginning of the year.

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Anderson High School English teacher Meghan Swartz talking to KXAN via Zoom from her classroom (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

“I’ve always firmly believed that you have to have some type of relationship there — especially with the freshman since they are brand new to our school community — before any sort of significant learning can happen,” Swartz said.

“These are kids that have never walked in the classroom with these teachers and that’s the real challenge,” Anderson High Principal Sammi Harrison said.

According to Harrison, only about 100 students are on campus on any given day, which is just 3-4% of the entire student body. The rest are still remote. But, even those showing up to sit in a classroom are still taking their courses on the computer. There are teachers in the rooms to help answer questions and provide additional guidance.

“Everybody has had to up their game of trying to figure out how to pull kids in when all you have is this virtual medium,” Harrison said.

Solutions for students

Harrison and her team have come up with a variety of solutions to help failing students and fight virtual fatigue.

She has asked teachers to cut down on screen time by slashing their 90 minutes of online instruction down to 60 minutes. She also lets the students use the remaining 30 minutes to work on assignments offline.

Harrison said graduation coaches make home visits to meet with families to check-in and ask how the school can help get their child’s grades up to passing.

Anderson High also started a program called Draft Fridays where teachers ask students who are falling behind to come to campus at the end of the week to meet with a teacher face-to-face.

“Every student I have had who has come back to campus has been able to improve academically to some degree,” Swartz said. “Whether that’s because they need a teacher in the room to answer their questions or whether that’s just because they don’t need to be sitting right next to their Xbox or their gaming system or their phone.”

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Cedar Ridge High School credit recovery specialist Sarah Christian working in her classroom (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

At Cedar Ridge High School in Round Rock, where the massive campus looks like a ghost town, Sarah Christian is the one who swoops in to try to help when a student’s grades start slipping. In her role as the credit recovery specialist, she’s been working with teenagers and their families virtually and in person. Christian tries to figure out the best solution, which she said can be different for every child.

She helps students get more organized, communicates with parents and puts together large binders full of guided class notes because some students do better with pen and paper. Students who are still remote can pick them up from the campus, and Christian also has been known to make a few home deliveries.

Derrin Alderete, 18, walked into her classroom in March when he returned to the campus to get help with English and economics. The high school senior, who runs cross country and is a member of the track and field team, said his grades and mental state started taking a dive as the first semester of virtual learning progressed.

“In school you have that motivation, you have that drive, you want to turn it in because the teacher’s right there ready to give you your answer,” Alderete said. “But, at home, it’s a little bit more laid back and you’re not very motivated.”

Alderete said he is catching up more by the day. Christian said he has taken advantage of after-school labs that Cedar Ridge and other high schools in the Round Rock Independent School District have been offering for virtual and in-person students. Cedar Ridge has a late-night lab from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. during the week, and also gives students additional support during Saturday sessions.

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Derrin was skeptical to go back to the quiet campus, but is now glad he did. It was his mom who pushed him despite concerns about his potential exposure to COVID-19.

“I have to choose my battles,” said Derrin’s mother, Esmeralda Alderete. “Is it the safety of COVID, or is it my son’s mental health? And, to see him like that — I have to choose one.”

Esmeralda said when she picked Derrin up from school on that first day back, she could see the sparkle had returned to her son’s eyes. Christian felt the same way.

“Anytime we get a new one walk in, it’s just like the best day ever,” Christian said. “We’re not here to stand behind a computer screen. We are here to work with our students.”

Lucian and Emmett say their grades have improved since they’ve been back on campus, too. Lucian’s parents also hired a private tutor to help get him back on track. He said the individual attention has been a life saver coupled with the social aspect of being back on campus among friends.

Like Derrin, Emmett and Lucian say they just feel better, and teachers can tell.

“Even if it is not academic improvement, it is like ‘I feel like a teenager again. I feel like I actually have friends and peers, and it’s not just a name on a screen,'” Swartz said.

Investigative Photographer Ben Friberg, Graphic Artist Rachel Garza, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Photographer Julie Karam and Digital Executive Producer Kate Winkle contributed to this report.