By Roni Java
Special to Feather Publishing Co., Inc.
Effective April 27, Plumas Unified School District’s (PUSD) seventh through 12th-graders have resumed required course work and will receive letter grades while studying at home as campuses remain closed to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Supplemental lessons for the secondary-level students have been discontinued. The return to graded and required lessons is part of PUSD’s next phase of distance learning.
Earning credits and A-F grades
For the spring 2020 semester, traditional letter grades of A-through-F will be used on report cards and transcripts for junior-senior high school course credit. The distance-learning update was approved by a 5-0 vote of the PUSD Governing Board of Trustees during a special meeting held virtually on April 20 in Quincy.
School Board President Leslie Edlund and Trustees Joleen Cline, Dave Keller, Dwight Pierson and Traci Holt, clerk of the board, considered six options to address students’ needs for course credit. The board ultimately chose option three that includes a special “hold harmless” provision to ensure student grades may only be improved, not lowered, from where they were on March 13 to the end of this semester.
Student access, equity issues
The trustees discussed a range of issues that would be impacted by whichever option they chose, including equity and access to technology that helps students stay connected with their teachers and complete their work at home.
It was estimated about 10 percent of PUSD students have challenges with online access and the school district is working on a variety of solutions with local partners, hot spot services and other efforts.
Help for graduating seniors
The trustees also talked about ways in which measurements of student achievement under distance learning would affect local graduating seniors applying to college.
Enrollment guidelines are still in flux nationwide with some higher education providers willing to accept credit/no credit on transcripts and debating whether or not to suspend SAT and achievement test admissions requirements this year.
“We are looking into the future and not knowing what the colleges and universities are going to do,” said Trustee Holt. “I think there needs to be some flexibility beyond this time.”
Trustee Pierson agreed. “I can’t see higher education giving that up (grades),” he remarked. “There is a trend now to view grades, GPA and student involvement as better predictors of college success than SAT test scores. Lots of higher education providers are struggling with this.”
Trustee Edlund supported option three with letter grades for a number of reasons, including the fact that students are used to that measurement of their effort and achievement.
“I think staying with grades will provide our kids with incentives to improve and certainly helps with scholarships down the road,” she said. “It’s the most motivating option.”
Distance learning challenges
Throughout the discussion, earning credit for courses was a concern, as was equal access to learning (with technology, paper packets or other options).
The board members also talked about trying to provide a level playing field for student learning when not every home can offer the same study conditions such as space for schoolwork, internet access, etc.
Board President Edlund commented about the potential for it to be easier for one student to earn a B from home than for another to do so, for all the reasons they were looking at.
“This is uncharted territory for all of us,” Holt said. “I can only imagine how families are working with this new (distance learning) environment and equity issues like sharing bandwidth, having only one device to log on with, or who can be online when.”
Weighing grades vs. credit/no credit
Among the six options that district administrators summarized for the school board were four suggestions to award credit/no credit at the end of this semester and two suggestions to maintain a traditional A-to-F grading scale.
In anticipation of PUSD’s work to address junior-senior high school course credit and grading needs for the remainder of the semester, the Plumas County Teachers Association (PCTA) provided the district with input on April 15. The union had polled its members and more than 70 percent of teachers favored two of the credit/no credit recommendations.
Both options would have included an ability to enhance credits recognized as being equivalent to an A or B grade. The options also provided student incentives to work toward higher grades and would not modify GPAs nor change class rank, valedictorian or salutatorian status.
Following the trustees’ April 20 vote for option three and the preservation of letter-grade evaluations, PCTA reported receiving a number of comments from teachers who expressed acceptance of the board’s decision. But, PCTA leadership said, many were “very disappointed” that their views and support for the credit/no credit options “were not shared more openly and publicly or discussed” at the board meeting.
No easy choices
The trustees considered various pros and cons of letter grading versus credit/no credit and they talked about the advantages and obstacles each presented.
No matter which option they chose, the trustees said, access and equity issues would trouble them. They all offered thoughts about what they felt would best serve students, families and teachers.
Ultimately, they preferred the graded option as being familiar to students and helpful on transcripts, scholarship competitions and college applications going forward. Board members said there was no ideal solution and they had concerns about impacts going into fall.
“I’m hoping we can revisit this and fix some of the equity issues (the district is currently managing),” said Trustee Cline. “Does this mean our students who don’t have good technology access won’t be harmed (by the grading/credit options)?”
Kristy Warren, PUSD’s Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, assured the board yes, students would not be harmed by a vote for either letter grades or credit/no credit.
She also acknowledged the decision was not easy to make and shared information that has been distributed to families district-wide.
Throughout the school site closure response to COVID-19, Warren explained, PUSD has “encouraged all students to remain motivated to study with the assistance and resources their teachers are providing.”
She added the district promotes social media connections and empowering messages for students to #OwnYourLearning and #FinishStrong.
Trustee Keller said, “No matter which option we choose, there will be equity issues to challenge a level playing field. Option three provides the best options for our students, teachers and families.”
Trustee Cline summed up the current obstacles and solutions.
“There is no way to find the perfect answer here, no matter what we choose,” she said. “Families are dealing with so many issues, including unemployment. Distance learning (with their children at home) is just one thing they are coping with right now. We need to do everything we can to support our students, extend some grace here and reach out to them.”