CAMDEN, N.C. (WAVY) — For many students, parents and teachers, virtual learning won’t be remembered fondly. 

Social ties and learning suffered, and it remains to be seen how long those effects will linger. 

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A father in Camden County wants his son’s learning deficit addressed now – by holding him back a grade. 

“Tommy did virtual learning the entirety of this school year. He struggled with it,” said Brad Dills, whose son Tommy is wrapping up the sixth grade at Camden County Intermediate School. “What 12 year old has the self-discipline and the self-control to sit there in a boring Zoom meeting?” 

Dills’s stepdaughter has an autoimmune condition, so Tommy did not go back to the classroom even as other students returned. 

Instead, Dills set up a workspace for Tommy in his offices, where he works two full-time jobs. 

“If I would get busy doing my work and look over, he’d be off task,” Dills said. “If I stayed on him and kept him on task, I’d fall behind. It was just lose/lose, no matter how I did it.” 

Tommy’s grades slipped, indicating to Dills sending him to seventh grade will only set him up for failure.  

“I’m not saying he was done wrong, I’m not saying he didn’t have the opportunity. I’m saying he messed up; he deserves to repeat the 6th grade,” Dills said. “Not necessarily as a punishment, but because he didn’t learn what he needs to learn.” 

But Dills found out that decision isn’t up to him. 

“General statute in the state of North Carolina gives the principal that authority,” said Camden County Schools superintendent Dr. Joe Ferrell.  

Ferrell didn’t want to address this case specifically out of respect for Tommy’s privacy, but he explained that a number of factors beyond grades go into determining whether or not to retain or advance a student.  

End-of-year assessments can tell educators a great deal about a student’s abilities in a way that grades cannot.  

“How much of [the grade] is a child’s ability, and how much is a child’s ability to turn in homework or class assignments?” he said. 

In addition to assessments, educators consider social and emotional factors. 

When a child is being considered for retention, Ferrell said he always asks the same question of teachers: 

“What are you going to do differently for a child this year that we did not do last year?” he said. “How’s his or her experience going to be different, so we’re not having that conversation where the student is still not ready to go on next year?” 

Although Ferrell is generally not in favor of retention, he said numbers jumped dramatically this year, an indication the district has not lowered its standards to move students through. 

“At our middle school, we had maybe two students recommended for retention last year. This year we’re looking at 27,” he said. 

Summer school will likely help move some of those students to the next grade with their peers, but in the years going forward, Ferrell said, all students may need an extra push. 

“The reality is all of our children have lost something across this pandemic,” he said. “Over the next three, four, five, six years, even, what are we going to be doing to sort of always be catching these students up so they don’t ultimately graduate from high school without all the skills that they need?”