Josiah Lesher. Photo by Lucas Manfield

SPENCER, W.Va. — On a frigid January afternoon in Spencer, the Lesher brothers were chatting on a stoop of their apartment complex, enjoying the sun. They’re worried about their grades. 

Hunter, a third grader at Spencer Elementary, said he’s been struggling with reading and math. The assignments are over his head, and even when they’re not, he can’t figure out how to submit them on his school-issued iPad. 

“I was an honors student,” he said. “And now I’m not.” 

His older brother jumped in. For Josiah, a sophomore at Roane County High School, the year has gone even worse. “Straight F’s – right off the bat,” he said.

The reasons spill out, and then multiply. The brothers have been learning remotely, and the family’s internet service is spotty. The local cable provider gave them sixty days of free service early on in the pandemic, but that ran out a while ago. Josiah said it has been a struggle to turn in work.

For a while, he made do. The family — the two brothers, their sister, and their mother —  crammed into a yellow Mercury coupe, parked in front of the library, and logged in there. But it was painfully slow. Everyone had trouble getting into their respective school’s various portals. Wires got crossed. Josiah turned in his assignments, he said, at least at first. But they never got marked. Before long, school officials were dispatched to their door.

Frustrated, Josiah gave up. “I quit doing [the work],” he admitted.

He’s not the only one. In late December, State Superintendent Clayton Burch dropped a startling statistic during a press conference: one-third of remote students were failing a core class, like reading and math. 

“Don’t punish them because they didn’t go to school — because I kept them home, because I was scared.”

angela lesher

The state hasn’t released more details, and hasn’t responded to a request for the information or answered a Freedom of Information request seeking it. The American Federation of Teachers has demanded more data, but a state administrator said in a recent board meeting that it could be months before they can compile a detailed breakdown. 

But if Roane County is any indication, the state is not overselling the problem. There, half of the “distance learners” are failing a class, a tragic consequence of the state education system’s inability to adapt to the pandemic.

‘I didn’t know what else to do’

In August, Roane County published its “re-entry plan,” an effort to return to some sort of normalcy amidst a pandemic that had shuttered schools statewide since March. Roane, like counties across the state, gave families a choice: brave the virus and send their kids back to school — or keep them at home, turning in assignments online. 

Angela Lesher, the boys’ mother, chose the latter. “I was scared,” she said. “I didn’t know what else to do.” Hunter has asthma. When he wears his mask, he complains that he can’t breathe.

Nearly 800 students in Roane County elected to do the same — almost half of the district. 

Their decision was understandable. At the time, many assumed that schools would become coronavirus hotbeds as kids shuffled between school buses, classrooms, and cafeterias — and then returned home to their families. There was much uncertainty, even at the highest levels of government. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, told teachers they were about to be “part of an experiment” and that “we don’t know the full impact” of school reopenings. 

Josiah Lesher and his mother, Angela. Photo by Lucas Manfield

But Lesher quickly regretted her decision. “After we got about a month into it, I realized how bad it was gonna be,” she said. “I’m not smart enough to teach them.” 

Furthermore, her time was limited. She was raising three kids alone. She’d lost her job as a babysitter and was frantically applying for — and being rejected from — cashier jobs in town. The pile of school assignments quickly became overwhelming. 

The Ann Street Apartments, where the Leshers live, is high up in the hills overlooking town. It’s a half dozen cookie-cutter buildings — brick two-story quadplexes managed by the Spencer Housing Authority. On this January afternoon, bicycles and children’s scooters littered the front yard. A cop car rolled slowly by.

The Ann Street Apartments. Photo by Lucas Manfield

Their neighbors are mostly families. Josiah counts a dozen kids on the block, at least. When the school year restarted, he said, many of them — and many of his friends — stayed home. 

They have their own horror stories.

There’s the first grader, a few houses down, whose mother had no idea he was failing reading until he went back to class earlier this week. There’s Josiah’s classmate, down the road in Gandeeville, who lives with his grandparents and is afraid to ask for help despite failing most of his classes. 

“Do you know how hard life is?” Lesher asked. “I want them to do better than what I did. I want them to have more.” 

Instead, she watched in desperation as her kids fell further and further behind. 

‘This is not an extended vacation!’

As Lesher’s kids struggled with schoolwork during the fall, Roane County School Superintendent Richard Duncan was also realizing the severity of the situation. 

Barely a month into the school year, data on student performance was already trickling into his office. “Oh, Jesus,” Duncan remembers thinking. “This is what’s coming.”

Research has long tied educational gaps to learning loss. When kids go home for two months of summer vacation, researchers recently found that they can lose upward of 30% of the year’s gains. For many students — particularly those in low-income families who can’t afford high speed internet, let alone tutors — the so-called “summer slide” threatened to extend far into the 2020-2021 school year. 

Spencer Middle School. Photo by Lucas Manfield

So Duncan marshalled forces. He tasked counselors, principals and support staff with the job of reaching out to struggling parents. The library printed out packets of worksheets to distribute to kids who couldn’t access them online. 

But, Duncan said, there’s not much educators can do if kids aren’t showing up for teacher meetings or turning in assignments. 

“We tried all the usual tricks,” Duncan said. “Obviously, they didn’t work.”

On Dec. 17, Duncan broke the news in a presentation to the county’s school board. Of all the grades given by the district in the first nine weeks of school in 2020, 18% were Fs. During the same time period in 2019, that number was only 3%. The increase was across the board, but far worse among distance learners. Over half of them were failing a class.  

And in a group of only about 770 students, 101, including Josiah, were failing every class. 

School administrators became increasingly desperate. “You must attend Teams meetings and do work while at home!!” an administrator posted on the Spencer Middle School’s official Facebook page in early January.

“This is not an extended vacation!”

A lost generation

Since the beginning of the pandemic, state leaders have expressed a deep skepticism of remote learning. Both the governor and state superintendent Clayton Burch have made it clear that they want kids back in schools as soon as possible. 

But their efforts to accelerate reopening have been fought by teachers, local school boards, and concerned parents, who first want to ensure kids and school employees are kept safe. In some counties, the virus has decimated the workforce to the point that there’s not enough personnel to drive buses and teach students. 

Tension simmered for months as the governor slowly tweaked state guidelines to open more schools. But despite Justice’s efforts, by the middle of December the virus was infecting a thousand West Virginians a day, closing schools in nearly every county in the state.

In the waning days of 2020, everything boiled over. On Dec. 30, citing dismal failure rates and new research showing limited spread of the virus in schools, Justice announced he was all but throwing away the current plan, which tied reopenings to the extent of community spread. Elementary and middle school classrooms, he said, would stay open regardless — even in counties so ravaged by the virus that they’re designated “red” by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.

The state board of education agreed. “Remote learning is not teaching,” said the board’s president, Miller Hall, before voting to implement the governor’s order.  

“They’re not learning, and we’re losing a generation of young people,” he added. 

The decision drew outrage. Both of West Virginia’s major teachers’ unions have challenged it in court. It’s ironic, West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said, that while Hall’s board meeting was limited to eight people, teachers will be stuck in smaller spaces with dozens more students. 

“They’re not learning, and we’re losing a generation of young people.”

west virginia state board of education president miller hall

In pre-recorded comments posted online by their unions, teachers from across the state implored Justice to delay reopenings until school staff could be fully vaccinated. Ultimately, some county school boards refused to comply with the state board’s order.

The debate has left Alison Gerlach, a caseworker and volunteer coordinator for a nonprofit that provides support for abused and neglected children, feeling conflicted.

“On one hand, I understand that everybody’s trying to protect the kids and the families of the teachers by doing virtual schools,” she said. 

On the other hand, Gerlach has witnessed the consequences: more kids falling behind in school, and fewer kids getting help. 

Gerlach works for Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA. Her division covers 10 counties, including Roane, and for the first time in the thirteen years she’s been on the job, her caseload has actually fallen. Reports to Child Protective Services have been cut in half statewide, the governor reported.

“I would like to think that that’s because the world is getting to be a better place, but I know better,” Gerlach said. Without teachers keeping an eye on them, kids are falling through the cracks.

“I worry less about the kids we have, and more about the kids we don’t,” she said.

Important work ahead 

With the first semester coming to an end, Angela Lesher successfully filed paperwork with the district to remove her kids from the “distance learning” track. The Lesher brothers are finally headed back to the classroom, and they’re thrilled. 

But the Leshers are in the minority. Superintendent Duncan had hoped to convince a larger number of families to make the switch, but was disappointed. In the end, only a fifth opted to do so. Duncan said he is running out of tools in his toolbox to get those kids reengaged in the school system. “I don’t know that we have a solution,” he said. 

“I try not to make hyperbolic statements, but this is going to be the most important work of my career so far.”

roane county superintendent richard duncan

And now, he has a new challenge: what to do with Josiah, and the other kids who’ve fallen behind. If they can quickly show improvement, Duncan said, the district is willing to give them a pass. But the consequences could stretch on for years — far past the end of the pandemic. 

“If you don’t do well in Spanish 1, Spanish 2 is going to be tough,” Duncan said. He’s considering credit recovery programs, but the problem is so complex that it threatens to overwhelm the district’s limited resources.

“We don’t have the staffing to do interventions for everyone. We can’t go to every single kid and find out — ‘OK, where are you?’ — and then provide additional tutoring support,” Duncan said. Administrators are now deep in discussions trying to figure out what to do.

“I try not to make hyperbolic statements, but this is going to be the most important work of my career so far,” Duncan said.

Josiah, too, knows he has important work ahead of him. He wants to graduate and become an auto mechanic. More pressingly, he wants to break the school record in the 100-meter dash, a feat he’s already pulled off once in eighth grade. 

The empty track at Roane County High School. Photo by Lucas Manfield

But the pandemic may put these plans on hold. If Josiah can’t get his grades up, he can’t run for the Roane County High School track team. Not only that, the failed semester threatens his academic future. Now, Josiah said, he’s considering joining the Army. 

Recently Josiah calculated what he needs to do to make it back on the track team and go for that record. It involves laps around the neighborhood to get back in shape — and a lot of As and Bs. Josiah knows it’ll be tough, but he’s going to try.

”I’m not the smartest kid out there, but I ain’t the dumbest,” he said.

And for his mother, there’s the lingering fear that she’s unwittingly sabotaged her children’s future. She’s hoping, desperately, that her kids aren’t held back.

“Don’t punish them because they didn’t go to school — because I kept them home, because I was scared,” she said.

A previous version of this story incorrectly misstated the classes with which Hunter Lesher is having trouble. He is struggling with reading and math.

Lucas Manfield is a Report for America corps member covering business and economic development. He has covered housing, health care and government accountability for the Dallas Observer and interned at...