Jeanette Beasley’s stepson is in fifth grade and barely reads on a second grade level. Since March 2020, when schools shut down at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, his progress has moved at a snail’s pace. His school, so far, has remained in virtual mode, and the services that typically help him manage his autism, ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder and learning disability have been lacking.
So now Beasley is preparing to beg her school district for an option that families often try to avoid: letting her son repeat the grade.
“He’s having multiple breakdowns or meltdowns a day,” said Beasley, who lives in Macomb County, Michigan.
Holding kids back is typically seen by parents and schools as an option of last resort, a socially stigmatizing action that often has a negligible academic impact. But after a year of unprecedented disruptions, some parents ― particularly those of children with disabilities ― are asking their districts for a redo.
The families frame their action as an acknowledgment that the last year of schooling failed their children and that without repeating a grade, they could either fall further behind or graduate without the necessary skills and knowledge. For older students with disabilities ― those who are already in their late teens or 20s and relying on schools to prepare them for the transition to the workforce and independent living ― getting more time in the system after all the pandemic-related challenges feels particularly urgent.
Disability rights groups say such decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis and should involve the team that helps to manage each student’s individualized education plan (an IEP is a legal document outlining the accommodations the school system should be providing to the child). They caution parents to carefully consider the drawbacks. Unlike years past, all students have likely experienced learning loss this past year, meaning everyone will be going into the next grade at a disadvantage, though students with disabilities may face greater impacts. Students in the lower grade will be trailing too, potentially setting retained kids back even further in their race to catch up.
“Research shows grade retention is not helpful academically, but has other outcomes like maybe not finishing school or dropping out,” said Meghan Whittaker, director of policy and advocacy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities, which represents students with learning disabilities who mainly remain in general education settings and hope to pursue higher education. “We need to focus on accelerating learning if they haven’t mastered what they need to master ― how we can condense standards or provide additional time in school, through maybe a summer program or after-school tutoring program.”
Retention in a lower grade may be one potential fix for children who have demonstrably regressed while learning from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Denise Marshall, CEO of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates.
“It sounds to us like a reasonable request if a student missed an entire year of learning. I would caution against that being looked upon as the only solution,” Marshall said.
Families who have been asking for this option report pushback or flat-out refusals from their school districts, a response that Marshall finds similarly concerning. “Those decisions are supposed to be data-driven,” she said.
If we stay virtual for the rest of the school year, that’s a year and a half he’s lost.
Teresa Ratliff, speaking of her son Jimmy’s struggles with distance learning
Beasley’s stepson, Cameron, can barely pay attention during remote learning, and tantrums and crying fits in their living room have become commonplace. He screams out of frustration, he throws things, he pushes his parents and squeezes their arms.
“He’s not socializing at all,” said Beasley. “I think it’s kind of messed him up.”
Though Cameron, 10, is currently a fifth grader, Beasley feels like a second grade placement would be more appropriate. She’s asked the district for years if Cameron could stay back and received only refusals. This year, she hired an advocate to help navigate the roadblocks, and now the district seems to be considering her request. They’ll be circling back in the spring to discuss Cameron’s progress.
“This year feels even more urgent because of the virtual learning,” she said.
For Teresa Ratliff, every moment her 23-year-old son has as a student is precious. Jimmy is autistic and participates in an adult transition program, which is helping him prepare for the workforce and independent living. His mom described him as “middle of the road high-functioning.” He is fluent on computers and able to follow directions, but has difficulty verbalizing his wants and needs. During the pandemic, he has been learning remotely for the most part, without access to in-school services like speech therapy.
Ratliff said Jimmy watches his teachers as if he’s mindlessly watching television, ostensibly attentive but without any real signs of engagement. If she’s not paying attention during subjects like art, he could go the entire period without putting pen to paper. His speech and language skills have clearly regressed, and he has started reverting to old habits like echoing the words of those around him, a problem that has reared itself during virtual class when he repeats his peers’ every word. He misses his job at the local grocery store, where he would straighten items on the shelves and stock the freezers. Every time they go to the store now, any store, he heads straight to the shelves for straightening duty.
When Jimmy gets agitated, he shreds tissue paper. Lately, Ratliff’s floors have has been covered in it.
“If we stay virtual for the rest of the school year, that’s a year and a half he’s lost,” said Ratliff, though Jimmy’s school recently transitioned to a hybrid model.
Jimmy can stay in school until he’s 26 under a Michigan law that applies specifically to special education students ― an older age than other states allow. During his IEP meeting this past September, Ratliff raised the idea of her son getting another year in school. The district immediately said no. Now, Ratliff plans to start pressing her state representative for options.
“They’re quoting what the law says, so the law has to be adjusted or should be adjusted,” she said. “I plan to still press to have that done.”
When they’re in school at home, they maybe pick up 10% of what you’re trying to teach them.
Diana Wright, who has six school-aged children with disabilities
Diana Wright of Wyandotte, Michigan, can rapidly tick off which of her six school-aged children she thinks should repeat a year or would likely benefit from doing so down the line. She has seven kids in total, all adopted, all born with drugs in their system and now dealing with disabilities of varying levels of severity. She is currently fostering another child, too. While Wright works as an electrician during the day, her wife watches the kids and has helped steer them academically during virtual learning. They recently started attending hybrid school.
At home, just getting the children to log on and stay on is a production. Chaos has become routine, said Wright. “You’ll be sitting on a Zoom with one kid and see our 20-month-old, Leah, has a Barbie shoe in her mouth,” she said.
Wright has two sons in second and third grades who are autistic and not on a graduation track. She expects them to continue on to the next grade level in the fall. Another son in third grade learns in general education settings and has an IEP. He has mostly been keeping up with the material. One daughter in preschool still has time before she has to move to elementary school.
And then there are her two daughters, ages 6 and 7, who are in kindergarten and who Wright thinks need to be retained. They both get instructional aides and other assistance and have global developmental delays. During this academic year, a year that is fundamental for a child learning how to be in school, they haven’t learned much of anything at all.
“Kindergarten is an important year for them to learn how to learn … but they’ve basically not really had much education since last March,” said Wright.
She expects pushback from the district on the idea of holding some of her kids back but is optimistic they will eventually accommodate her, based on her kids’ history and lack of academic progress. She also has an advocate to help her navigate the system. Throughout the past year, she’s met with the district to lament the overall disorder, the shifting school schedules and the difficulty of managing online learning for so many children in one house.
“When they’re in school, I think they definitely learn. But when they’re in school at home, they maybe pick up 10% of what you’re trying to teach them,” said Wright.
“My overall opinion of school right now is we’re all trying to survive a pandemic ― teachers, administrators, parents and kids. Call it a pause, call it a bonus year ― whatever you want to call it, something needs to happen. It’s just too much.”
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