Struggling with virtual learning, some students are required by school systems to return to in-person classrooms


WASHINGTON COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL)- As virtual learning continues for thousands of students across Northeast Tennessee, some school systems are grappling with how to help children who are failing online classes. For certain districts, this could mean requiring struggling virtual students to return to in-person learning.

Elizabeth NeSmith has three children learning virtually with Washington County Schools. Her family has medically vulnerable members, and NeSmith is the primary caretaker for her 80-year-old grandmother. She’s adamant that online school is their only option during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While virtual learning is working for NeSmith’s two youngest children, her oldest son at David Crockett High School is failing at least one class.

“He’s always struggled. And they push him along. And I’ve done everything I can at home to help him,” she said.

NeSmith believes it would make no difference if he were learning in-person. But she received a message from the school and a phone call. According to the message, unless a child has medical documentation saying they can’t return – they are required to learn in-person after fall break.

A message NeSmith received from David Crockett High School

“We can’t afford to go pay a $100 copay just for a doctor’s note, just so he can go to school,” said NeSmith.

Officials for Washington County Schools did not respond to News Channel 11’s request for an interview or more information about their policy on Thursday.

Washington County Schools is not the only system that may require struggling virtual students to return in-person, but every district handles the process differently.

Most Johnson City Schools families electing to continue remote learning have found success, according to Director of Instruction and Communication Dr. Debra Bentley.

For others, the process has been harder. Bentley said they’re currently working with families having trouble with online school. This entails providing technical assistance and communicating with parents through email and in-person visits if needed. Some students have to sign an Academic Success contract if they fail to meet remote learning expectations.

“In our remote learning handbook, there is a paragraph that does say that the school system may require your child to return to in-person learning if all of the interventions do not seem to be successful,” said Dr. Bentley.

But this would be a last resort, and Dr. Bentley says they are still in an intervention phase where removing a student from remote learning hasn’t happened yet.

“Many of these families have chosen remote learning for their children because of health issues within the immediate family or extended family, and we certainly respect that,” she said. “We want to work with them to make this platform and this process successful for their children.”

News Channel 11 reached out to other school districts on whether they had similar policies.

A spokesperson for Kingsport City Schools said in a message:

“KCS students attending school virtually through our Remote Choice Learning program may not continue to have that option due to lack of attendance or lack of academic progress.

A spokesperson for Bristol, Tennessee City Schools said in a message:

“Together with parents and school administrators, we counsel students who are struggling or failing to return in person based on what is best for their needs. However, we do not force it if they have COVID needs and concerns.”

NeSmith says she’ll remove her son from Washington County Schools and enroll him in online public school before allowing a return to in-person learning.

“I’m not going to take the risk of bringing this virus into our family and risking our lives. Because he can always retake algebra, but you cannot give someone their life back, she said. “This is a pandemic that is new. This is a unique situation. At the end of the day, these classes can be redone.”

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