Student Well-Being

Maintaining Ties When School Closes Is Critical to Preventing Dropouts

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 17, 2020 8 min read
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After Robbinsdale Armstrong High School, outside Minneapolis, shut down abruptly last Friday in response to a potential case of COVID-19, teachers and staff met one last time in person—while keeping six feet apart—to brainstorm ways to keep their students connected.

“The idea is to try to find ways that, once a week at the minimum, you’re doing some sort of face-to-face where the students can hear you talking and they can respond to you in conversation,” said Anne Beaton, an Advanced Placement teacher and coordinator of the school’s Building Assets, Reducing Risks program, which creates teams of teachers and staff to support students. “We’re using [online tools] to get kids to be able to video themselves and put their voice out into the world. ... One of the things that the teachers have been talking about is how do we maintain just that relationship piece.”

Chronic absenteeism is such a red flag for students at risk of dropping out that it has gained traction as a district accountability measure. But now, with some 74,000 schools closed for weeks nationwide to stem the spread of the coronavirus, experts say educators must act to keep students’ ties to school from unravelling.

“Kids who are already at risk of dropping out, maybe something’s happening to them physically or emotionally, and that’s part of why they are academically challenged, or they aren’t feeling a sense of connection or belonging in the school,” said Hedy Chang, the executive director of Attendance Works, a nonprofit organization that studies ways to prevent absenteeism. “If you knew a kid was chronically absent or at risk of dropping out before this crisis came, you know, they’re even more at risk now that this crisis is here.”

We know little about how previous epidemic-related closures affected students’ longterm school trajectories; most prior studies have focused on shorter-term impact on test scores rather than dropout rates, which may show up months or years later. But significant research finds individual absenteeism increases the likelihood students will eventually disengage and drop out of school, and schoolwide closures for other reasons—such as natural disasters and weather events—have also been found to lower academic progress and graduation rates.

“School has two parts; it has experience and instruction,” said Sandy Addis, director of the National Dropout Prevention Center. “Right now we have a hodgepodge of virtual learning systems in schools, trying to address the instruction side. The experience side of school is almost totally on hold.”

Most districts that have had to shutter classes for more than a few days have turned to virtual learning programs, which are already widely in use for students who have struggled in traditional school environments. Many dropout-prevention and -recovery programs do incorporate online credit-recovery, according to Russell Rumberger, education professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and director of the California Dropout Research Project.

But most effective credit-recovery or dropout prevention and reengagement programs are “augmented with some in-class sessions like tutoring to help students that are struggling and support the kind of bantering or relationship-building that goes on as well,” Rumberger said. “And that’s the part that’s gonna suffer, I think, with the schools closing. Kids need a certain amount of self-discipline to go through an online course, and they don’t have the encouragement of the teacher or their fellow students. ... I’d be skeptical or concerned that [online-only learning] really wouldn’t be a suitable replacement for the interpersonal side of things.”

Districts that have systems in place to flag early academic, behavior, health, or other problems in students can prioritize which students to check on, and those that have systems for rapid email or text communications with parents can adapt these to provide personal messages, home activities, and other morale boosters to students and parents stuck at home. Rumberger suggested that districts that move to e-learning consider partnering with community groups, such as local Boys and Girls Clubs, to incorporate online mentoring and tutoring for students who need extra help.

“For many students, you know, schools occupy a central hub of their life experiences,” said Chad d’Entremont, executive director of the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy, which studies dropout prevention and recovery in Massachusetts, one of the states that has closed schools statewide. “It’s where they connect with peers. It’s where they think about their future. It’s where they don’t just build academic skills, but hopefully in the right environment, other skills and competencies that they’ll use in the workforce. And if structured properly, that can be exciting and can be a place where students really want to be and want to reconnect to that experience. And I think it’s important for schools to promote and play up the role that they have in students’ lives beyond academics.”

Moving to Virtual Support

The BARR program, which trains teams of teachers and support staff within schools to monitor students’ academic and social-emotional growth. has always used virtual meetups for professional development, and teacher teams at schools like Armstrong High have moved their weekly meetings to virtual spaces to continue to check up on students, monitor their academic and social-emotional progress goals, and identify which students seem to be having a difficult time adjusting to distance learning.

“So many of our 9th grade teachers have talked about how they feel more connected to students this year than in years past because of what we’ve been doing with our teenagers. And so I think people have felt like really responsible for keeping that going,” Beaton said. For example, for most of the year, 9th graders have been paired with 12th graders as study and homework partners, and the teachers are trying to find ways to help the students continue their study sessions virtually.

Cheng said one silver lining of suspending normal class schedules is teachers may have more time to reach out to each student individually. “Maybe that’s something that a teacher wouldn’t have had time to do before,” she said, but, “I would make sure that teachers call each of their students and if they had to prioritize who to call, prioritize the kids who are already chronically absent, because you know already they were struggling.”

While Armstrong High will have a week of spring break before entering remote learning, Beaton said teachers have already started sending out social media questions and setting up class conversation starters and polls to use with students when they take attendance for virtual classes. This week, they are checking in with the students most likely to be upset about the transition.

“Even going back to the evidence for ESSA, we know scientifically that the key to students being engaged in school—and even being healthy—is maintaining relationships. So we need to call out the fact that social distancing does not mean to not maintain a relationship,” said Angela Jerabek, the executive director of BARR. “Rather, it’s going to challenge us to think about other ways to keep those relationships intact, expecially for the kids who are often the most isolated.”

“The whole lens is connectedness and the idea that no one can be left behind,” Jerabek said. “We’re going to really prompt the students to be reaching out to their classmates, because we also know that there are certain kids who don’t get the same amount of connection when they’re not in the physical space of school.”

Addis recommended that districts also provide ways for adult and peer leaders of school-based clubs to connect with their members online, in social media, or in other ways.

“One of the real challenges we’re going to face is a lot of kids come to participate in and succeed in school because of nonacademic factors of their identity: You know, ‘I’m on the football team, I’m in the band, I’m a member of the ROTC.’ ” he said. “I’ve got a group I’m connected to. Well, if we were at home and we aren’t allowed to go to the club and we aren’t playing after school ... then a lot of these kids are going to lose the very elements that get them to come and succeed in school.”

In Washington D.C., for example, about 600 middle and high school girls at risk of dropping out of school had been participating in mentorship and peer support programs through a group called Crittenton Services. When the district’s schools closed in response to the coronavirus, the girls introduced their group leaders to a “house party” app that allowed them to continue to hold group meetings via social media.

"[The girls] really are concerned about that lost social interaction with their friends and they’re beginning to understand the seriousness of the situation, that you can’t just go hang out with friends anymore after school,” said Siobhan Davenport, president of Crittenton. “So they are actively participating and they’re coming up with great ideas on how we can maintain that interaction with them.”

Photo: (Clockwise from top) Counselors Melinda Vogel and Janie Dukowitz and math teacher Timothy Lloyd at Robbinsdale Armstrong High School, outside Minneapolis, meet online as part of the Building Assets, Reducing Risks program to discuss students’ academic and social progress and prioritize supports for students while the school is closed in response to the coronavirus. The school is expected to be closed through at least March 27. Source: BARR

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.