NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – Months into the school year, public school students in Norfolk, Virginia, are still waiting and wondering when they might set foot in the classroom again.

New data shows the school system’s shutdown in March, when the coronavirus pandemic began, affected Black students more than other racial and ethnic groups. Fifty-eight percent of students attending Norfolk Public Schools are Black, a much higher share of the population compared to national or regional census counts.

That data, though, is also key to addressing the very disparity it revealed, according to director Dr. James Pohl, NPS’s director of curriculum.

Dr. James Pohl, Norfolk Public Schools’ director of curriculum (WAVY Photo)
Dr. James Pohl, Norfolk Public Schools’ director of curriculum (WAVY Photo)

“We knew that students and parents were all over the place once the shutdown happened,” Pohl said. “Some parents had to work because they were essential, some didn’t. Some really lost focus because family members might have gotten ill.”

With that in mind, the system decided that students who were in good standing prior to the shutdown would not be held accountable for what happened after.

Instead of failing grades, they would be marked “incomplete” and move forward with their peers in the fall.

“An incomplete really told us that the students, by the end of the year, hadn’t been in touch with their teachers or hadn’t completed the work that had been assigned since the shutdown,” Pohl said.

What the numbers show

According to data obtained by Nexstar station 10 On Your Side through a Freedom of Information Act request, 16% of students received at least one incomplete grade during the 2020 spring semester, but many received multiple incompletes.

Of the 12,455 incomplete grades submitted, 71% went to Black students.

In comparison, about 12% of those incompletes went to White students and 11% to Hispanic students.

“We were able to use that data to see where our disconnect was,” Pohl said. “Without this information, it would have put us at a downhill when we started the year because we wouldn’t have known who to even look at.”

NPS used the information to figure out how to approach teaching this fall.

Making a plan

First, the district handed out thousands of devices to make sure students had the tools they needed to connect and learn from home.

Officials also started the semester with daily, real-time virtual instruction. But, they realized teachers were burning out and dropped to four days per week, according to Pohl.

Still, that gives teachers and administrators a better idea compared to the spring of who is attending and turning in assignments.

“We’re reaching out more immediately now, where in the spring we didn’t have that capability,” Pohl said. “We’ve placed a bus and a driver at every school so we can take staff to the communities as well to re-engage students.”

Pohl says the data on incomplete grades helped only for this specific challenge, since incomplete grades won’t be an option for future semesters.

Long-term, collecting data year-round may be useful for gauging student performance.

“The more we use data and we learn about live data, the quicker we can respond to our students’ needs,” Pohl said. “It really gave us a chance to learn as a division and it helped us open our eyes where they may not have been opened across the whole division.”

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.