Falling Through The Cracks: Why Some Students Aren’t Succeeding in Online Learning


Ben Townsend

Teachers are learning to navigate teaching lessons to an empty classroom.

When Governor Hogan ordered that schools close on March 16, everything changed. 

With COVID-19 infections rising globally, the future was murky and the list of questions began to grow. Would we be going back to school in two weeks? In August? Next spring? What would going back to school even look like? When would we be able to go to the movies, play sports, see friends, be teens again?

When we went back to school on April 14, students and teachers had to do something that had never been done: Navigate online class schedules, both synchronous and asynchronous, as well as adjust to a world unlike one we’d ever seen. 

Over the summer, debates raged over what school should look like in 2020. 

Finally, on July 10, the Howard County Public School System announced that middle and high schools would be moving to what it called a “4×4” semester schedule for the 2020 school year to “help students and teachers manage [their] workload and streamline synchronous classes,” according to an HCPSS press release on July 10. 

The goal was threefold: To give teachers fewer students to allow for more one-on-one class time, to lessen the workload on everyone, and to create a fresh start for potential in-person or hybrid classes in the spring semester.

After a month of classes, many students and teachers are reporting that this new method is working. However, according to Hoonuit data, which pulls data from Cavas daily, as of October 6 2020, 42.9 percent of Wilde Lake students had an E in at least one class– that means that nearly one in two students were failing in at least one out of their four classes. This begs the question: How are so many students still falling through the cracks?

Senior William Parker has been a linebacker for the Cats since his freshman year. (K Allen Photo)

William Parker is a senior at Wilde Lake High School. He started playing on the varsity football team as a freshman and was slated to be the starting linebacker during his senior year. Parker is a self-described people person, and when he puts his mind to something he’ll achieve it. He is glad that the school system moved to the four-class system. “Four periods is way better. It gives you time to not only do work but to also focus on clubs, sports, applications for colleges and more,” Parker said. “ Plus, it’s just less stress.” 

Anisah Abdurrahman, a JumpStart student, has found that she has more free time with the 4×4 schedule. 

Anisah Abdurrahman, a Wilde Lake senior, has been taking AP classes for years. She is a JumpStart dual-enrollment student who puts family and friendships first. By only having four classes Abdurrahman’s workload has been reduced, which is allowing her to focus more. “I am not as overwhelmed with assignments,” Abdurrahman said. “[The 4×4 semester schedule] helps me understand the class more and I can take in more information because we are not jumping from subject to subject.”

But for junior Berekat Welch, who takes mostly on-grade-level courses, even though there are only four classes at a time, his workload has actually increased. In fact, Welch says he feels more stressed than ever. The increased workload and decreased teacher interactions have fueled this stress, he says, especially on top of an already isolating and stressful

Berekat Welch, a junior, describes himself as a “kind, funny, caring, chill and fun person.”


Mr. Valente, an English teacher at Wilde Lake, is working to meet the demands of the new system. He explains that he adjusted his curriculum after realizing that it simply is not possible to cover the same amount of material in a semester with four 45 minute classes a week as over a year. “Since more of students’ class time is asynchronous [as compared to a regular year], I also had to adjust my expectations for what students would be able to do without the usual amount of teacher support,” Mr. Valente said.

Despite teacher flexibility, some students are still struggling to manage their schedules. “I can only imagine that students will find this more challenging, and some students have shared that they feel a bit overwhelmed by the workload,” Mr. Valente said. “There does seem to be a lot less time to support students one-by-one.”

Thaila Ramsahoye says online learning isn’t working for her.

 Last year sophomore Thaila Ramsahoye was the captain of the junior varsity step team– she loves anything music or dance. She also loves biology, and she takes a mix of GT, honors, and on-grade-level courses. According to Ramsahoye, however, this year’s 4×4 schedule has only meant more work for her.“It’s not more manageable because since it’s only four classes, the teachers are giving a lot more work, so it’s not even a plus,” Ramsahoye said. “I feel like [the new semester system] is a good thing for other people, but not me.”

To contribute to the growing list of challenges for failing students, by the fourth week of school, more than 60 students at Wilde Lake hadn’t received a Chromebook from the county.

According to Assistant Principal Brett Molin, this left some without the necessary technology to attend class. “I think that some of our students’ grades may have been impacted by not having a Chromebook,” Mr. Molin said. “While not having a Chromebook or other computer certainly presents obstacles for some students, Wilde Lake teachers are willing to be flexible and help these students meet with success and allow them to catch up when needed.”

According to Mr. Molin, this shortage was addressed in week five when the Chromebooks were finally delivered by the county and those students were provided with the requested technology.

Principal Marcy Leonard said that Wilde Lake has been working to address challenges like students’ lack of internet or technology which has been negatively impacting their grades. However, she also notes that “there are a myriad of other factors outside of students’ control [impacting the number of Ds and Es they have], including housing and food instability, the need to care for family members, and the economic reality of students taking on jobs to contribute to the household income.”

“None of us has experience in teaching and learning during a pandemic, and we are all working through all the things as best as we can,” Ms. Leonard said. “Our staff members are prioritizing four values during virtual learning:  compassion, empathy, flexibility, and love.” She is encouraging everyone to demonstrate these values both towards others and themselves.

Because the 4×4 schedule was designed to accommodate fully online, hybrid, or fully in-person classes, the next test of this new format will come as the semester ends.