4 thoughts on preventing long-term dropouts post-COVID

'Graduation rates and school accountability measures could take a nosedive,' dropout expert warns
By: | May 19, 2021
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Superintendents around the country have prioritized tracking down students who missed all or most of the pandemic-disrupted 2020-21 school year and convincing them to return to classrooms.

Getting these students to come back, however, will be the first step in what will a long and challenging recovery process, says Sandy Addis, chairman of the National Dropout Prevention Center.

“If a school had, for example, 50 at-risk kids before the pandemic, now those 50 kids may be in worse shape,” says Addis, who is also a school board member in his home district in Anderson, South Carolina. “And there’s a group of kids you would not have considered at-risk before who have not functioned well during the shutdown, and now they’re at risk.”

Here are four concepts for superintendents and their teams to keep in mind as they bring students back and provide support services for recovery:

Rising failure rates: There’s likely to be a steep increase in the number of students held back moving up to the next grade. Addis cautions that this can have a long-term, as even students held back in early grades are more likely to struggle in ninth and 10th grades and may not graduate, Addis says.

“Grade retention is a bad thing to come back to,” he says. “That’s a dropout waiting to happen.”

Impacts of disengagement: At-risk gets often need a steady routine to get back on track, but these routines were heavily disrupted during the past year. Also, many students lost access to the main reasons they come to school, such as a certain teacher, sports or an after-school activity.

Not surprisingly, students who’ve had less face-to-face contact with teachers will be more likely to have trouble re-acclimating, he says.

“A lot of kids are motivated to come to school and engage academically because of these non-academic supports,” he says. “You’ve got to recreate these connections.”

Students will need flexibility: One way that district and building leaders can re-engage students is to form post-COVID recovery teams to assess each students’ needs and experiences of the pandemic, Addis says.

Students, for instance, are less likely to re-engage if, when they return, the focus of educators is only on how far they’ve fallen behind.


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Addis recommends administrator resist the temptation to base attendance on how many hours a student was logged into online learning.

“We may have to give some kids a little bit of pass,” Addis says. “Applying pre-pandemic academics standards and attendance rules to post-pandemic school doesn’t fit.”

Personal connections are key: Principals, teachers and other educators will be going door-to-door and making phone calls in the coming month to reconnect with families. Again, the immediate focus here should not be on how far a student has fallen behind.

Educators need to extend personal invitations to families to assure students school will be a welcoming environment, Addis says.

“You have to say to students ‘We’ve got a situation for you that you want to be in and will be happy being in,'” he says. “You have to say ‘We’ll do whatever it takes to get you back in school and we won’t let you fail.'”

But despite educators’ best efforts, graduation rates may drop over the next decade as some students who lost ground during COVID drop out, Addis warns.

For instance, students retained in the fourth grade in 2021 may manifest more at-risk behaviors in ninth grade. “The next 12 years are going to be tough,” he says. “Graduation rates and school accountability measures could take a nosedive.”