KANSAS CITY, Kan. – U.S. educators are doing everything they can to track down high school students who stopped showing up to classes and to help them get the credits needed to graduate, amid an anticipated surge in the country's dropout rate during the coronavirus pandemic.
There isn't data available yet on how the pandemic has affected the nation's overall dropout rate, and many school officials say it's too early to know how many students who stopped logging on for distance learning don't plan to return.
But soaring numbers of students who are failing classes or are chronically absent have experts fearing the worst, and schools have been busy tracking down wayward seniors through social media, knocking on their doors, assigning staffers to help them make up for lost time and, in some cases, even relaxing graduation requirements.
At one high school in Kansas City, Kansas, staff members have made thousands of calls to the families of at-risk students, said Troy Pitsch, who supervises high school principals in the city.
“If we lose a student, it is going to be after kicking and screaming and fighting tooth and nail for them,” Pitsch said.
Many districts were forgiving last spring when schools shut down abruptly, freezing grades unless students wanted to improve them. That made this year the first for which schools would feel the full effects of the pandemic on student performance and engagement.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization warned that the pandemic had put 24 million children worldwide at risk of dropping out of school. That could erase gains the U.S. made in reducing its dropout rate, which fell from 9.3% in 2007 to 5.1% in 2019, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
To keep students on track, some local governments and school systems have waived certain testing requirements for graduation or changed grading policies so that missed assignments aren't as damaging.
A National Dropout Prevention Center report predicted a doubling or tripling of the number of students who were at risk of falling behind academically and not graduating.
Among them was Jose Solano-Hernandez, a senior at Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kansas. In January, at his lowest point after the deaths of one grandparent from COVID-19 and another from cancer in the same week, he estimated that he had missed eight assignments in each of his classes.
“I wouldn't make my parents proud,” he recalled thinking as he struggled to learn virtually at night while working by day at a mechanic's shop.
Solano-Hernandez has been slowly chipping away at his backlog of work since his school brought back him and other struggling seniors for extra in-person help more than a month before the rest of the student body returned at the end of March. He said the change brought “relief” and he's now hopeful he'll graduate.