Northwest Classen High School in Oklahoma City is empty during a statewide closure of public schools. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

The final weeks of the school year at any high school are often a scramble for students trying to catch up on credits needed to graduate or those hoping to break into a new letter grade. 

There is the straight-A student looking to bump up a B in history in order to complete her reign of perfection or the student hoping to maintain a 2.5 grade point average, the minimum for the Oklahoma Promise scholarship for low income students.

Then there is the student at risk of not graduating, faced with making up assignments that will get them just across the finish line.

This year, that end of the semester dash is made even more complicated as schools across Oklahoma are completing the academic year remotely. The closure of school buildings in response to the coronavirus pandemic means makeup assignments and extra credit opportunities have to be completed at home.

“Our first priority right now are those seniors who are failing a class that they absolutely need to graduate,” said Greg Frederick, principal at U.S. Grant High School in south Oklahoma City. 

Because a large portion of the final months are devoted to state testing, which have been cancelled this year, Frederick said students aren’t missing out on a lot of new material to learn. 

But students still had assignments to complete from earlier in the semester. 

“When we closed schools we immediately went into data mode and started sorting through which seniors fall into which category,” Frederick said. 

In a senior class of around 350 students, U.S. Grant High School had 29 students in danger of failing a class, 15 of which needed it to graduate. 

One month into distance learning that number had been cut in half, Frederick said. 

The state Department of Education has ordered schools not to lower grades and to be extremely flexible with students needing to catch up. 

Federally required state tests for grades 3-8 and high school have been waived. Many schools require more than the state-mandated 23 credits, but the state Department of Education has advised local districts to adjust their requirements. 

Districts have also been advised to still issue traditional letter grades to be posted on final transcripts. 

At most schools across the state, students are offered assignments where scores are based on participation, according to a review of distance learning plans submitted to the state. 

Claremore Public Schools has instructed teachers to use either a passing or incomplete grade for assignments offered through paper packets, virtual classrooms or work that can be sent to a smartphone.

“We will lead with love — not lessons, patience before programs, relationships before rigor, and grace before grades,” Claremore’s distance learning plan states. “This is not a free pass; we want to challenge our students but not their parents.”

In Stillwater Public Schools, “All grades will be given with ​great leniency​,” and a senior will not be denied graduation “if any attempt is made to participate,” according to the district’s distance learning plan. 

At Stillwater’s alternative high school school, the focus is on seniors achieving graduation. 

“In our self paced environment, students will be allowed to continue working toward necessary credits with an adjusted reduced curriculum aligned to the state standards,” according to the district’s plan. 

In Tulsa Public Schools, teachers have been advised against retaining students a grade level.

“Given the disruption in the school year, and the overall stressors of the COVID-19 crisis, we do not recommend retention for any students,” the district’s distance learning plan states. “Parent requests for retention should be considered and discussed thoroughly with parents before decisions are made.”

Part of the push to use flexibility with students is the lack of technology in every home. 

At the FAME Academy alternative high school near Duncan, staff are mostly relying on paper packets for their 16 seniors to complete work. 

“A lot of my students don’t have internet and they may have data on their phone but you can’t make them use all that data on a family phone for an English assignment,” said Elizabeth Ressel, the school’s principal. 

Teachers at FAME Academy post lessons to a private Facebook page for students and Ressel is passing out packets at student homes as she drops off boxed food. 

In addition to a lack of technology, many of her students also have to juggle work.

“One of our kids works at a grocery store part time but is now working more than 40 hours,” Ressel said. “He will watch the lesson online and will say ‘I have to leave, my ride’s here for work.’” 

A sudden shift to distance learning has resulted in less rigor, but the strategy of most schools is to do the best they can during a global pandemic. 

“This is not the ideal situation, this is not what education should look like, even in the 21st century,” said Brian Broderick, a teacher at U.S. Grant High School, who teaches a combination of credit recovery and Advanced Placement courses. 

Students in Broderick’s credit recovery class were already using an online program and after school buildings closed the district required just half of the program to be complete in order to pass. 

Because many of the students in credit recovery programs face a language barrier, challenging home environment or lack a phone, the school’s counselors and administrators have taken the lead on connecting with those students who have assignments left to complete. 

In Broderick’s Advanced Placement classes students still have a test to take, which will be offered on any internet-connected device, or photos of written answers uploaded with a smartphone. 

“I think motivation is hard for all students right now but in my AP class I’ve told them we still have an exam to take, we can’t just say that the rest of the school year doesn’t matter,” Broderick said.  

With a week left in the academic year for Oklahoma City schools, Frederick, the principal at U.S. Grant, said even if school buildings were open there would still be students cutting it close. 

“I really don’t see that it is any different than any other years because we have always had students we are dragging across the graduation stage,” Frederick said. 

“Having grace with kids that are in situations like this is nothing new to the education profession and, like other years, we have a team that is working overtime to get students to the end.”