MCHS “held harmless” policy harmful to student motivation

By Audrey Moessing, copy editor

As updates on online education came out from Santa Rosa City Schools, none was greeted with as much relief as the frozen grades policy, or the fact that “students will not receive a grade lower than his/her third quarter grade,” according to the Maria Carrillo High School online learning guide. However, the “held harmless” policy has changed the way students approach their coursework.

“The decision of whether or not to require graded work from students is a local one,” according to the California Department of Education. SRCS decided to make that call based on the goal of no student being “penalized for inability to access online education.” However, per state code, “students are still required to participate in their education” and “schools have an obligation to provide support and services.”

While teachers have risen to the challenge of instructing online, the lack of GPA consequences has taken a certain vigor from classes. In her Honors Trigonometry/Pre-Calculus and AP Calculus classes, MCHS teacher Cindy Lui has noticed a “definite drop in motivation all around, even from myself as a teacher.” However, being an honors and AP teacher, Lui feels she works with an “academically-minded group to begin with,” which she believes accounts for the fact that “participation has dropped only slightly.” She cited being “pleasantly surprised by the high attendance in [her] Zoom classes, even from students who are choosing not to complete assignments.”

In Math 1 it’s been a different story; teacher Margaret Bradylong’s classes have had a more pronounced discrepancy from standard attendance and application. “It seems like [students] are having a very difficult time being able to put forth the extra effort” required to complete the work that can only raise their grades. Bradylong said of the situation, “We are in a pandemic. This is so not normal. None of us signed up for learning while sheltering in place,” yet school must go on. In the class Zooms she has been holding, Bradylong has found getting “students to participate can be difficult.” From sleepy, quiet and distracted students to the fact that many won’t turn on their cameras, Bradylong describes it as “exhausting” to try and maximize the current classroom experience. 

Beyond just the math classes, MCHS has experienced a consistent decrease in student involvement. Vice Principal Amy Wiese said, “Some teachers are noting that 70 percent or more [students] are participating, [even] up to 90 percent, while other teachers have expressed that while it started out higher, more recently…they have about 50 percent of students participating.” Wiese attributes some of the decrease to the “yearly phenomenon with seniors during spring,” and admits it’s “not wholly indicative of their new learning platform.” But not all of the missing assignments can be marked as senioritis.

Senior Mimi Garcia has taken a mixed approach to the new system: “I’ve abandoned [my electives] just because I’m guaranteed an A for them,” but also said, “My senioritis in terms of APs has subsided because I have more time to dedicate to them.” Garcia recognized that “electives just feel wrong outside of the usual school setting” due to the fact that many of them require physical or musical learning that can’t come from a book or be simulated online. She noted, “they aren’t fulfilling anymore.” However, she has stayed as or more dedicated to her AP classes as “doing well on the exams at the end of the year will directly affect what courses [she takes] next year in college.” Though after the AP tests, her attitude may change as “the real end of [her] senior year feels like it’ll be [her] last AP test.”

Sophomore Sara Rivera has no claim to senioritis but still feels “it has overall been hard to find motivation in general to finish [her] work.” In classes like English and biology, she can “get [work] done fast,” but others such as Math 2, Treble Choir, Spanish and even World History “take a little longer” and end up getting put off for later. Rivera said she gets “the work done but it sometimes is super last minute and [she goes] late into the night to finish it.” However, she said, “Knowing my grades can’t get any lower makes me feel a little reassured, but it hasn’t stopped me from doing work.”

District policy mandates that “students who are not participating or completing work will first be contacted by their teachers,” then “MCHS Support Staff“ and finally will “be contacted by site leadership to advise them and their families of the potential consequences,” according to the MCHS online learning guide. Teachers will continue to “maintain and update the Illuminate grading system so parents and students can see the students’ progress in each subject matter,” though the fourth quarter and second semester grades remain unchanged. Submitted work will only count positively toward students’ academic record; Illuminate inputs are just for reference.

Between the lower amount of work completed and the “reduced the amount of work expected of students during this traumatic event,” there is the fear that progression to the next academic year will be hindered, according to Wiese. However, the California Department of Education reassures that students “will move to the next grade level as normal.”

Lui anticipates that “we will all have to spend much more time reviewing in future years, especially in a subject like math where ideas and concepts build upon each other so much,” but according to Bradylong, “the Math Department agreed on what we would cover in each course, so students that are participating in the same classes will have exposure to the same material.” However, Bradylong agrees that “next year is a big unknown” and will be “extra challenging because not only will we have material that we didn’t get to, but also we will have students who didn’t participate in quarter four for whatever reason, who will be missing big chunks of material, while others will have mastered it.” 

Wiese maintains that as “professionals, and as they do every year, [MCHS] teachers will pre-assess students in the fall to determine where students are at academically. Looking at the collected data, they will then tailor their instruction according to the needs of their students.”

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