For Jocelyn Meraz, her last years of high school were anything but easy. In the weeks and months after the pandemic forced schools statewide to close indefinitely in March 2020, Meraz, who was then finishing her junior year at Oak Park and River Forest High School (OPRF) in Oak Park, noticed her depression worsening.
As Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order pushed people into isolation, Meraz said the pandemic robbed her of the opportunity to go out and surround herself with friends, a crucial lifeline that helped mitigate her symptoms. She felt alone. She started sleeping more and losing interest in the things she normally liked, and her grades were slowly slipping.
“I kind of gave up at one point,” said Meraz, 18. “With every class, I just gave up on doing homework. I don’t know … I feel like focusing on school made me sad. I feel like it was just really bringing me down.”
By the time her senior year rolled around, Meraz continued to struggle. Attending school online for months and then transitioning into hybrid classes became all too much, and the further she fell behind in class, the harder it was to catch up.
Throughout high school, Meraz said she got mostly A’s and B’s and up until the pandemic, “I never failed all my classes before.” By the time her senior year ended, however, Meraz had failed three of her five classes.
Meraz is the embodiment of what appears to be a Catch-22 that many students at OPRF experienced during the pandemic. As the social-emotional challenges of coronavirus compound, students’ grades take a hit, which may prompt even more social-emotional challenges and more bad grades.
While there’s no hard evidence establishing a causal relationship between poor grades and social-emotional stress, there’s nonetheless evidence that demonstrates at least a correlation between pandemic stressors and academic performance.
For instance, Advance Illinois, the education advocacy group, polled in December 2020 over 100 parents, caregivers and students across the state to learn how the pandemic affected them and their communities.
According to the survey, parents and caregivers “described a ‘low-level depression’” in students who showed “apparent” disinterest in going to school or hanging out with friends. They also saw a shift in students’ sleeping and eating habits.
Eighth through 12th graders who also took part in the survey said they noticed their friends and classmates were “depressed” or “stressed out” by the “isolation, limitations to activities or other pandemic-related challenges.”
“Teachers often saw this in students who didn’t want to turn their cameras on, or they didn’t participate in virtual lessons, or they didn’t show up to virtual lessons,” said Staci Garvin, an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at Concordia University in River Forest who oversees the university’s trauma and resilience program.
A sharp, inequitable rise in F’s
Data provided by the high school shows that 10% of OPRF students had at least one F during the first semester of the 2020-21 pandemic academic year — going from 6% and 8% during each of the first semesters of the previous two academic years.
But when disaggregated by race, the increase is much more pronounced. The percentage of Black students receiving at least one F during the first semester of 2020-21 was 25% — up from 15% and 17% in the first semesters of the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years, respectively.
The percentage of Hispanic OPRF students receiving at least one F during the first semester of 2020-21 was 14% — up from 9% in each of the first semesters of the previous two school years.
After the pandemic closed schools, OPRF District 200 officials increased the range and robustness of social-emotional supports they offered students, and implemented measures designed to lighten the academic burden and make the grading system less punitive.
For instance, school administrators provided online and in-person tutoring, and teachers held office hours after school for at least four times a week. During the second semester, administrators dropped finals for Bridge Week, so students could catch up on missing assignments and work closely with their teachers.
It isn’t clear what impact these actions had on the number of students who were failing in the second semester of 2020-21, since the school has not yet released its report on second semester grades. A spokesperson for OPRF said that the report will be presented to the school board in August.
Lynda Parker, OPRF’s director of student services, said that “some students” utilized the additional online and in-person academic support services and “some did not,” but did not provide a detailed breakdown of participants.
Parker and Janel Bishop, OPRF’s dean of students, said it was tough enough simply trying to track class attendance during the 2020-21 school year, as OPRF transitioned from full-time remote learning to hybrid learning. Bishop said some teachers noticed students logged into class with their cameras on before disappearing.
“You would see the box and you’d see their name, but you’d call them out and they would never respond,” Bishop added. In addition, when OPRF reopened in February for hybrid learning, some students would at times log into classes virtually instead of showing up for in-person classes, as was expected.
High school administrators also implemented changes to their grading policy. At the start of school closures in March 2020, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) issued guidelines for school districts to follow, which included lifting some graduation requirements for the Class of 2020.
In addition to those state guidelines, OPRF administrators decided to not give any Fs as the 2019-20 school year ended. Students who were failing could receive a “no credit” mark, which would give them the chance to retake the course over the summer without affecting their grade point average. Students could also make up their third-quarter grades, Parker said.
“If you went out in the pandemic with a ‘C,’ you were not going to get lower than a ‘C.’ You could get higher if you were doing more to accelerate, but you weren’t going to go lower than that,” said Parker, who will serve as OPRF’s principal and assistant superintendent next year.
“There was a lot of leniency,” she continued. “When we left, nobody expected to be out for as long as we were. There had to be things put in place so that students didn’t adversely suffer.”
Addressing the racially disparate distribution of F’s, Parker added that the district was “very intentional in targeting students for support.”
Two months before the 2020-21 school year started, ISBE officials allowed school districts in the state to return to traditional grades, but only if “students have all the necessary tools, technology and teacher supports at school and at home to complete all assignments, take assessments and complete projects in a timely manner.”
For some students and parents, the marked increase in students, particularly Black and Brown students, with failing grades during the first semester of 2020-21 suggested that OPRF was lacking those “necessary tools” and supports to confront the burden of that apparent Catch-22 — pandemic stress, which leads to faltering grades, which leads to more stress.
During the 2020-21 school year, nearly a dozen Black and Brown OPRF students challenged the school district to show even more grading leniency, particularly as students of color grappled with the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 and the racial tumult related to the death of George Floyd.
In late May, almost a week before the 2020-21 school year ended, Marlene Meraz, Jocelyn’s younger sister, and their mother, Cynthia Brito Millan, rallied outside the high school and demanded school administrators adopt grading policies that went much further than the ones the district had already implemented.
Among their demands, students with the Revolutionary Oak Park Youth Action League (ROYAL), the student-activist group that organized the May rally, called for the district to reinstitute a “no-fail” policy and to suspend the A through F grading system altogether for the rest of the school year.
The expectation to get good grades amid a pandemic, the students said, only exacerbated their already stressful lives. During the rally, some students of color, virtually all of them young women, talked about playing the roles of surrogate parents and teachers while helping their younger siblings with remote learning. Others shared stories of coping with grief after losing loved ones to COVID-19.
Leticia Villarreal Sosa, a clinical social worker and professor of social work at Dominican University in River Forest, said the infamous video of Floyd’s murder by former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020, was itself a source of trauma, especially for students of color who watched it and had to live through its implications — including the protests and rioting that came in the video’s wake.
“In the George Floyd situation, the people who directly witnessed that or were directly impacted by that, it doesn’t just impact those folks. It impacts the entire African-American community,” she said. “It not only triggers the identity trauma of understanding that that happened because of the disregard for Black lives, but also this has been something that the community has been dealing with historically, and that historical trauma gets passed down generations.”
Millan, who is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said she understands why having good grades are important, but argued schools needed to exercise even more empathy and flexibility, especially amid a historic pandemic.
Mary Anne Mohanraj, the parent of an OPRF student and a newly elected school board member, also recommended that the district go even further in making its grading policy more lenient for students.
Mohanraj, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said that her university modified its grading policy after the pandemic to ensure that D grades appeared on students’ transcript as “Credit (CR)” and F’s as “No Credit (NC).” In addition, D and F grades did not impact students’ GPA calculation. Mohanraj recommended OPRF take similar action.
“I understand different institutions have different guidelines and rules and possibilities,” said District 200 Supt. Greg Johnson in May 2021 (he was assistant superintendent at the time). “For our school district to make that change would be incredibly significant.”
In May, Johnson said that OPRF’s grading system did not have the capability to implement the modifications that UIC implemented and that, while “anything is possible,” given how late in the school year it was, making the change would be pretty difficult from a logistical standpoint.
After taking ROYAL’s demands into consideration, the District 200 school board voted in May to lift all local graduation requirements for the Class of 2021 and to waive all fees for students enrolled in summer school. The board, however, did not vote for Mohanraj’s recommendation to convert all F grades to “No Credit.”
Board member Ralph Martire spoke for many administrators and other board members when he lauded the range of support services and resources that administrators and faculty members put in place after the pandemic, which he said were working for the vast majority of students at the high school.
“No matter how well you design a system, not everyone is going to thrive in that system,” Martire said.
School officials had reported before the board’s May decision that 29 students, or about 5% of the senior class, were not on track to graduate. The board’s decision to waive graduation requirements brought the number down to 26, according to school data.
District administrators indicated that they’re focusing on a range of holistic measures designed to address the social-emotional challenges faced by students, particularly those of color. Many of those measures go beyond the district’s grading policy.
For instance, when Parker and Bishop noticed that students were “disappearing” from virtual classes, they began checking attendance almost weekly and kept a closer eye on students whose attendance dropped below 90%. Wednesday Journal had requested information to see the attendance data over the last five years, but was denied access.
From phone calls to home visits, school staff, counselors and social workers would often reach out to students and their families to try and understand the barriers they faced either at school or at home, Parker and Bishop said.
“It was our responsibility […] to be in contact with all of our kids and encouraging them to get back on board, to be in their classes, to get work from their teachers, to be a conduit between them and their teachers to find out what we had to do to make that relationship work,” Parker said.
Millan conceded that an aggressive, holistic focus on social-emotional health should supersede a more narrow focus on grading policy.
“Having seen my daughter [Jocelyn] excel at this institution and then seeing her the complete opposite was really concerning,” Millan said. “I was more concerned about her well-being than these stupid grades, to be honest. I was more concerned about her depression and how it made her feel about life. I just wanted her to get through it.”
Next year, the school plans to roll out another set of resources, one of which may give teens the chance to swap out study halls for one-on-one lessons with teachers. OPRF also looks to partner with a community center to help students with homework on the weekends.
“I know from the beginning that help is available,” Parker said. “The next step is to help students be comfortable reaching out to access it. We’re trying to give a whole bunch of opportunities and options for students, so they can feel comfortable stepping out to access those opportunities.”
This past year, OPRF hired a trauma-informed school interventionist expected to educate and train staff on “what trauma looks like” and create everyday practices to address students’ behavioral and emotional needs, Bishop said.
The school also announced that six of its employees, including an English teacher and a school psychologist, were chosen to participate in the Trauma Responsive Education Practices Project, a 16-month training fellowship program at the University of Chicago. OPRF also recently added a part-time care coordinator, a position funded by a grant from the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation with a partnership with DePaul University.
“We are looking to wrap every arm of support around that child while in the building and also connect them with outside resources that can help them get through the trauma that they may be dealing with,” Bishop said.
This piece is part of a collaboration that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, The Beacon/KCUR; Bridge Michigan/Side Effects Public Media; Cicero Independiente/South Side Weekly; Detour Detroit/Planet Detroit/Tostada Magazine; Evanston RoundTable/Growing Community Media; Madison 365/Wausau Pilot & Review; and MinnPost/Sahan Journal.
The project was made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with additional support from INN’s Amplify News Project and the Solutions Journalism Network.