High school principal Jimmy Swindler directs traffic at the school entrance on the first day of school in August.

In an email to Rappahannock County High School teachers, Principal Jimmy Swindler called for an all-hands-on-deck effort to “as legitimately as we can reduce the number of failing grades.”

“What we all have to understand is that if we move forward with a 40+% failure rate it won’t be long before the good folks from VDOE [Virginia Department of Education]’s School Improvement Team come knocking at our door, and I’m pretty sure that NONE of us wish to see that scenario unfold,” Swindler wrote.

Swindler attributed many of the failing grades to the sheer number of unfinished assignments and asked teachers to use the next week as “student reboot” days to help students catch up on incomplete work, emphasizing that “a failure rate of such high percentage is, rightfully, cause for alarm.”

But Swindler also said that the extraordinary circumstances created by the pandemic are largely to blame. “It is pretty clear that in this case the fault lies not with the teachers or the assignments, but rather the environment in which the learning is taking place,” he wrote.

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“Please remember this is a BRAND NEW environment for all of us — there is no blueprint to follow or or past data to compare with.”

It is unclear from the email what exactly Swindler expects teachers to do if students do not catch up in a meaningful way after the proposed “reboot.” “We are not dictating to teachers that they have to have X summative and Y formative assessments,” he wrote. 

One concerned teacher told the Rappahannock News that it was Swindler who asked teachers to put zeros in their grade books in the first place to try to incentivize remote students to do their work. “There are many students that have gone the extra mile to get all this work done, why reward the ones that have not. [sic] This is wrong!” 

But Superintendent Dr. Shannon Grimsley said teachers and students had no reason to be alarmed. In an email to parents, Grimsley wrote that “many of the students are having a hard time completing remote learning assignments. For students that are having trouble with these assignments, and for whom we do not have enough work to constitute a grade, we will be placing an incomplete on the report cards to provide extended time to complete assignments.”

In an email to the Rappahannock News, Swindler added that “the problems we are having are being repeated across the state.”

Swindler also denied any allegations that he has encouraged teachers to change grades. 

“That is NOT one of the strategies we discussed,” Swindler wrote. 

“We certainly did discuss reaching out to parents and students, creating added time in the classroom to give students the chance to get caught up over the next few days, and perhaps exempting some students from some minor assignments IF the circumstances merit.”

“As trauma-informed educators,” Grimsley said in an interview, “we can presume that this time is traumatic for students and their families. Seeing a zero on a report card is reflective of challenges with the remote learning model, not necessarily of teachers or their students.”

As for the students who have done all their work and managed to maintain high marks, Swindler and Grimsley emphasized that they would not be affected. “This is not about penalizing anyone, it’s about supporting all of our students through this incredibly difficult time.”