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Final grades are due soon. How lenient or tough should teachers be right now?

It’s a touchy subject as educators weigh students’ struggles during the pandemic against the need for them to learn.

TAMPA — Hillsborough County school district leaders could see the problem a mile away: students falling off track while learning at home during the coronavirus pandemic, and heading for a crash landing at report card time.

So they crafted a blueprint for schools and teachers, right down to lists of students who needed help and sample letters to parents.

The notice included this sentence: “The final grade is determined by the teacher.”

But that didn’t stop teachers from reacting strongly to the detailed instructions, the extra work it would involve on their part, and the idea that it could lead to inauthentic grades.

“We circled back and made sure that we had clarity,” said superintendent Addison Davis. But weeks later, he and union leaders still find themselves assuring teachers that they get the final say in report card grades.

It is a question schools are facing everywhere during the pandemic: Is it better to give out a passing grade, even if a student hasn’t earned it, to avoid being punitive after two months on lock-down? Or should teachers grade the way they normally do, and risk some demoralizing consequences?

“Since day one I have been preaching that less is more, we need to be as forgiving as possible,” said Mike Gandolfo, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. “We don’t know what these kids are going through at home.”

School districts around the nation have shown little consistency on the question.

In San Francisco, school district leaders have vacillated between giving every student an automatic “A” for the fourth quarter and adopting a credit/no credit grading policy for middle and high school students.

Washington state is allowing A, B and C grades, or an “incomplete” that can be reversed when work is turned in. "F’s will not be allowed — there will be no failures this term,” superintendent of public instruction Chris Reykdal said at an April news conference.

A survey of 50 states by the publication Education Week showed 16 suggest or mandate a “do no harm” approach in final grades. Most states consider promotion to the next grade a local decision. Eleven have policies that encourage promotion during this time.

The official line in Florida is to treat distance learning like real school, even though some of the tools that teachers use to calculate grades — most importantly, final exams — have been eliminated.

And, just as some districts have wrestled with the question of how much work to assign, they have had to walk a tightrope on the issue of grades.

In Pasco County, officials sent a note to parents recently, telling them they would like for students to “finish strong.” At the same time, the district assured them that teachers have been instructed to prioritize key learning objectives and allow students to learn at their own pace.

That last phrase means teachers are to give students “multiple opportunities to demonstrate their learning, and provide the ability to turn in submissions additional times to show proficiency,” the notice said.

Pasco is not taking the stance of some other districts, that fourth-quarter grades may not bring down a student’s overall semester grade, said district spokesman Steve Hegarty. Teachers, he said, are still giving grades based on work the students have completed.

Pinellas has communicated its stance in videos, featuring superintendent Mike Grego and associate superintendent Kevin Hendrick. Their message to teachers: Be transparent, consider various ways students demonstrate what they have learned, and do not allow attendance to be a factor. Hendrick also wants teachers to consider the student’s record in the first three quarters of the year.

Despite these and other communications, Gandolfo said he, too, has fielded questions from anxious teachers. His message has been consistent: Give students every opportunity to turn in work, no matter how late.

“We’re in a unique situation,” Gandolfo said. “What these kids are learning, it’s like the kids that went through the Great Depression and learned a whole set of real life skills. Kids are learning lessons that actually mean something to them, that they will reflect on in the years to come, not just how to bubble in an answer on a test sheet."

In Hillsborough, school officials say they created their grade enhancement plan in mid-April with the best of intentions: To help guide teachers through the difficult task of accommodating a large population of students learning from a distance for the first time.

The plan was also a recognition of the reality that teachers often give students second chances throughout the year and beyond.

“From a teacher’s perspective, they’re always going to allow a child to master standards, regardless of what point in the year,” Davis said. “Kids have breakthroughs at different times.”

The plan specifically laid out which students were eligible for grade enhancement, what steps could be taken to get students back on track, instructions for principals, and deadlines for the work to be completed.

On April 23, after discussions between Davis and the teachers’ union, acting chief of schools Shaylia McRae sent an email to the district’s principals, saying that “the information shared by Mr. Davis was intended to provide some ideas around best practices when grading during e-Learning.”

Although the district was still asking for teachers to show flexibility and compassion, she wrote, “this was in no way intended to be a directive on assigning student grades.”

Davis said he hopes the message got through.

“Teachers own grades,” he said. “They are the driving force, they are the professionals. We want to make certain that we provide recommendations so that they can continue to help children be successful. Our role here is to be a support factor.”

Staff writer Jeffrey Solochek contributed to this report.

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