Four months ago, Jalan Clemmons turned a corner of his family’s Memphis apartment into a cozy workspace and prepared to start his first year at Hamilton High School online.
He learned to check the assignments tab on his Microsoft Teams student dashboard for work he needed to complete. He participated in class virtually. He thought it was going well.
But during a November video call with his algebra teacher, the 14-year-old had a terrible realization: There was a separate tab he never clicked on, where his teachers had noted missing assignments. Jalan, typically an A student, had 73 assignments in seven classes that were overdue.
“Just to know that you wake up every day thinking that you are having an awesome amazing day of working, all this hard work that you’re putting your best effort into it, just to come to find out that all your effort, all your hard work, it’s not there,” he said.
Now he and his mother, Anna Nuby, are trying to figure out how he got so off track. The answer seems to be a combination familiar to many families adapting to remote schoolwork: technical problems with unfamiliar learning platforms, limited teacher feedback, and computer glitches.
What’s certain is that Jalan needs to complete the work by the semester’s end in February or risk failing classes. The stakes are high: Under normal circumstances, ninth graders who fail even one course are less likely to graduate. This school year, as students and teachers grapple with remote learning and the pandemic’s disruption to education, more students nationwide are failing their classes. District leaders are debating how to handle the problem.
Jalan’s district, Shelby County Schools, has not publicly reported how many students are failing courses or if the number is unusually high. The superintendent of Collierville Schools, a neighboring suburban district, said one-third of high school students were failing in his district. He used that statistic to push for more in-person learning, but the recent COVID-19 surge delayed the proposal.
During a normal school year, Jalan might have realized sooner that he had missing assignments. One of his teachers would likely have pulled him aside before he got too far behind. But this year, Jalan is keeping track of seven classes from a desk in the living room, with an unreliable district-issued laptop.
His mother wants him to complete most of the assignments over Christmas break. She’s been on the phone with several teachers and administrators trying to figure out why she wasn’t notified sooner about Jalan’s missing assignments.
She doesn’t want him to end up with failing grades as he looks to life beyond high school — especially as a Black boy in America.
“They don’t even have to know his name,” she said. “If he’s not put together, they’re just going to throw him away.”
Ninth graders often have a hard time transitioning to high school. They need help with time management. The course load is heavier. And remote learning makes it worse, said James Bacchus, Jalan’s principal at Hamilton High School.
Bacchus said freshmen often fail some classes even in normal school years because they “aren’t accustomed to the workload.” School staff try to nurture them and teach them to manage their time, he said.
“By us being virtual, we’re not able to do all that … They didn’t have that proper transition that they normally would get if we were in school.”
Still, Bacchus doesn’t expect this year’s failure rate to be much higher than normal.
Nina Reed, who coaches 11 high school leaders in the Memphis Freshmen Success Network, including Hamilton, said she has noticed more students ending the quarter with a lot of incomplete assignments.
“And of course you want to get that taken care of because you don’t want it to turn into an F,” she said.
Some of Jalan’s missing assignments were backed up on his computer so he could resend them. Others weren’t. He can’t submit some of the work because the original assignment has expired. One teacher told him she would not accept the assignments via email.
In situations like Jalan’s, Reed recommends schools assign a mentor to the student so someone is regularly checking on them and can guide them.
The first opportunity for a check in with Jalan didn’t sound any alarms. Not all Jalan’s teachers were in his parent-teacher conferences in October, but those who were said he participated well in class and was consistently one of the first students to turn in assignments, his mother said.
Before the start of the school year, Jalan received a laptop from the school district. To get it, his mother got a ride from a distant cousin — the family car had been stolen during the spring — and then waited more than an hour in line. But the laptop, Jalan’s only connection to his teachers, often shuts off, even when it’s fully charged.
One of his teachers recommended taking the computer in for repairs. But without a car, Nuby has to wait until someone is available to give her a ride. She has been saving up to purchase another car in early January.
Jalan started working on some of his missing assignments on a recent weekend, eager to knock out as many as possible. He worked for two hours, but completed just four assignments. The work ranges from a simple Christmas word scramble to more demanding essays.
The task ahead weighs heavily on him.
“I’m getting more tired than I used to,” he said. “When I wake up, I’m just instantly tired. Sometimes I almost fall asleep in class. But before, I just never did. I was always energized and excited, but now I’m just tired every time I wake up.”
Despite the pressure the pandemic has put on many families, Shelby County Schools still requires the same workload for students. The state’s annual standardized tests still are scheduled for the spring, though the legislature may lessen some of the punitive consequences for low test scores. District leaders have said they want to make sure as much learning as possible happens before then, so they still mandate 17 assignments per nine-week period during remote learning.
“It doesn’t seem excessive during a normal school year,” said Melissa Berretta, a veteran teacher at another Memphis high school. “But when students have to look at 17 assignments times seven classes on a screen, that’s a lot.”
Bacchus, the principal of Jalan’s school, said his team is striving to offer “any opportunity we possibly can” for students to make up work. Students who complete make-up work in three classes have the chance to win a $100 Walmart gift card donated by an alumnus. Hamilton High hosts tutoring sessions three days a week after school, but students have to sign up. Teachers don’t refer them.
Reopening school buildings could make it easier for some students, but it’s not a quick fix.
Most families in Shelby County Schools aren’t comfortable sending their children back to classrooms. Only about one-third of students plan to attend when buildings reopen. Just 17% of teachers have said they want to return to classrooms, according to the district’s survey.
The school district had planned to reopen classrooms in January, starting with elementary students and then students in sixth grade to 12th grade about two weeks later. But Superintendent Joris Ray delayed the plan earlier this month as the daily average of new local COVID-19 cases neared 500 and deaths from the virus topped 700. Soon after, Tennessee briefly became the state with the highest rate of new cases in the nation.
Even if school buildings reopen, the district plans to keep instruction online to maintain consistency for students in an otherwise inconsistent year. That means students will still be learning through a screen, even if they are in a classroom with their teacher. School staff will be there to answer questions and make sure students are on track.
While his mother would rather he remain at home so she can watch his progress, Jalan said he “would do anything” to return to the classroom. Maybe if he were back in a building, he said, school staff would help make sure all his hard work is recognized — not lost.