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Dropout Prevention in the Time of COVID-19

May 18, 2020

SRI International
   Laura Kassner, REL Appalachia
   Deborah Jonas, REL Appalachia
Education Northwest
   Steve Klein, REL Northwest

Students on the path toward dropping out of high school often exhibit signals that they are at risk well before they stop engaging in school. As school closures due to COVID-19 separate students from structured routines and educational supports, the number of disengaged students may continue to grow. Educators should be aware of and look for signs of disengagement and act to maximize engagement and supports for at-risk students during COVID-19 closures.

While all this is especially challenging to educators working remotely, Preventing Dropout in Secondary Schools, a report published by the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education,i provides recommendations for educators that we have adapted for the circumstances of the COVID crisis.

What can educators do now and throughout the summer to help prevent students from dropping out?

Monitor student engagement

During a typical academic year, educators can use routinely collected data to monitor student performance on three indicators predictive of dropping out: attendance, poor behavior, and failing grades. ii, iii, iv, v With data from these indicators, schools and districts can offer personalized support for those who need it.

Educators can use pre-COVID-19 data to identify students who were at-risk of dropping out before the pandemic and deliver personalized supports to help students overcome their current challenges. Unfortunately, the pandemic is likely to introduce significant new challenges for still more youth, prompting a need to continue capturing data that can help educators identify and connect with students who disengage from school or otherwise fall off track during this time. While closures may hamper schools' ability to collect some types of data, educators can collect data aligned with indicators that evidence suggests will predict high risk of dropping out and use those data to identify and reach out to students who may need additional support. The table below provides some adaptations of the traditional metrics used in dropout prevention that educators can use in online or distance learning environments.

Traditional “during school” metrics Potentially parallel “during COVID” metrics
Attendance Excused absences (school days)

Unexcused absences (school days)
Not attending virtual school/learning activities

Not accessing available learning materials (online or packets)

Not participating in or nonresponsive to school's efforts to contact or other outreach efforts
Behavior Suspensions (in school)

Suspensions (out of school)

Office referrals
Concerning behavior during virtual classes

Inappropriate activity in online chats/polls

Documented/known incidents of stress or trauma
Grades Cumulative GPA

Missed class assignments

Test failures

Number of Ds and Fs on assignments
Turning in poor-quality assignments

Not turning in assignments

Failing classes needed to graduate

School and district administrators as well as data professionals can help aggregate the data teachers collect to facilitate an organized action plan for reaching individual students. For example, if all teachers were to collect and report on a common set of indicators from the above table, school leaders could document students evidencing multiple risk factors and identify a trusted adult to take immediate action.

Build trusted relationships

Developmental research finds that the presence of a caring, trusted adult in the life of a child contributes to engagement in school and resilience in the face of adverse, vii, viii,ix Further, such relationships are most consequential for marginalized youth.x ,xi Strengthening bonds with students—and forging connections with those signaling they are on the path to dropout—is particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic. Until schools re-open, pay attention, open lines of communication, and demonstrate care for students. The proactive monitoring and engagement efforts described here will position educators to target intensive services on those who need it most when we construct our new normal.

Do not wait until school resumes to make more purposeful attempts to engage students. The following ideas, based on examples from the dropout prevention literature, can help educators connect with and reengage youth.

1. Let students know they matter, they are missed, and support is available
  • Send a personalized text or make a personal call—reach out to let students know you are concerned about their well-being. Consider using leading questions to assess their situation, such as:
    • How are you feeling?
    • How is your family adjusting?
    • Are there home responsibilities that are interfering with your learning (for example, caring for siblings or other family members, working a job, etc.)?
    • Do you need anything?
    • What can I do to help you?

      An educator featured in a recent RELQuick Chat described using the popular
      app TikTok
      to create a video to reach students and convey social emotional support.

      Check out the full archived resource online.

  • Use creative, informal modes of outreach—students who struggle in school may have difficulty dealing with traditional models of schooling. Consider nonthreatening strategies to engage with students, such as:
    • Dropping off a care package with a personal note with an invitation to connect.
    • Using social media to communicate with students in a venue in which they are comfortable.
    • Setting up regular check-in calls with students and families, or groups of students, and be prepared to suggest topics that will interest participants ready for discussion.

2. Address potential barriers to student engagement
  • Consider students' home situation—layoffs and social distancing may introduce economic and personal stressors that manifest poor school engagement. Where possible, offer information to help students and their families cope with challenges introduced by COVID-19, for example:
    • Provide information on school meal distribution points.
    • Identify school counselors or therapists who may provide psychological support.
    • Connect families to community groups that provide social services (e.g., YMCA, Boys & Girls Club, faith-based groups, etc.).
  • Assess students' home learning environments—determine the root cause of student disengagement. Poor attendance, behavior, or bad grades might be due to external factors. Ask about students':
    • Access to Wi-Fi and computers.
    • Ability to access hard-copy packets.
    • Configuration of their home learning space (i.e., do they have a quiet place to work?).
  • Provide personalized instructional supports—students may struggle to engage in online instruction or be afraid to engage in a public discussion. Take steps to customize instruction to individual student needs, for example by:
    • Offering one-on-one tutoring using a videoconferencing platform to share screens.
    • Structuring assignments to address known learning challenges.
    • Assigning work related to a student's specific area of interest (e.g., cars, gardening).
    • Identifying students dealing with similar challenges and, if appropriate, engaging them in a supportive group chat so they feel less alone.
3. Engage students in their learning community
  • Create innovative approaches to motivate student participation—online instruction of complex academic topics can be daunting and dull. Find ways to excite students to participate. Potential strategies could include:
    • Theme-based instruction organized around sports, the arts, current events, pop culture, career exploration, or anything that sparks student interest. Hold a discussion of a book or consider a graphic novel for reluctant readers, such as March about the Civil Rights Movement, Nimona about a shape-shifting girl who wants to be the sidekick of a supervillain, or even Animal Farm: The Graphic Novel.1 For a twist, consider discussing a podcast your students would find interesting such as Story Corps, This American Life, Stuff You Should Know, or The Moth.
    • Have students write and share pandemic-inspired poetry during an open mic virtual poetry slam.
    • Join a watch party of a movie (rated PG or lower) and share a laugh while discussing literary themes.
    • Invite mystery guest speakers to join virtual class sessions and provide clues to their identity leading up to the big reveal when you meet online.
    • Use rewards for participation and turning in assignments. One educator dangles invitations to group video game events to motivate students to complete assignments.

Resources on engaging students and dropout prevention

  • Resources aimed at dropout prevention:
    • The WWC Preventing Dropout in Secondary Schools landing page includes the most recent dropout prevention guide, which provides educators and administrators with four evidence-based recommendations for reducing dropout rates in middle and high schools and improving high school graduation rates. Each recommendation provides specific, practical strategies; examples of how to implement the recommended practices; advice on how to overcome potential obstacles; and a description of the supporting evidence. This guide served as the basis for the adapted recommendations and can help administrators further prepare for preventing dropout in the 2020/21 school year.
    • The National Dropout Prevention Center provides resources for schools and teachers during school closures, including virtual professional development. This video on school disruption offers information about disruption as a risk factor for dropout.
    • This infographic from REL Northwest was designed as a planning resource for dropout prevention teams, with specific ideas for vulnerable student groups.
  • Resources to help educators recognize and implement strategies that leverage the power of a caring adult and of caring for students' social-emotional well-being:
    • This REL Northwest infographic supports efforts to strengthen a positive environment and suggests a sense of belonging as key to student success.
    • This site from Education Northwest provides diverse resources for building teacher-student relationships.



1 Common Sense Media is one source to find graphic novels by age group.

i R. Rumberger, H. Addis, E. Allensworth, R. Balfanz, J. Bruch, E. Dillon, D. Duardo, M. Dynarski, J. Furgeson, M. Jayanthi, R. Newman-Gonchar, K. Place, & C. Tuttle (2017). Preventing dropout in secondary schools(NCEE 2017–4028). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE).

ii Rumberger et al. (2017).

iii E. M. Allensworth, J. A. Gwynne, A. S. Pareja, J. Sebastian, & W. D. Stevens (2014). Free to fail or on-track to college: Setting the stage for academic challenge: Classroom control and student support (Research Brief). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. /sites/default/files/2018-10/FoF%20Academic%20Challenge.pdf

iv R. Balfanz, L. Herzog, & D. J. Mac Iver (2007). Preventing student disengagement and keeping students on the graduation path in urban middle-grades schools: Early identification and effective interventions. Educational Psychologist, 42(4), 223–235.

v A. J. Bowers, R. Sprott, & S. A. Taff (2013). Do we know who will drop out? A review of the predictors of dropping out of high school: Precision, sensitivity, and specificity. The High School Journal, 96(2), 77–100. 10.1353/hsj.2013.0000

vi A. Meltzer, K. Muir, & L. Craig (2016). The role of trusted adults in young people's social and economic lives. Youth & Society, 50(5), 575–592.

vii D. Murphey, T. Bandy, H. Schmitz, & K. Moore (2013). Caring adults: Important for positive child well-being (Research Brief). Bethesda, MD: Child Trends.

viii National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2015). Supportive relationships and active skill-building strengthen the foundations of resilience (Working Paper 13). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, Center on for the Developing Child.

ix J. Pringle, R. Whitehead, D. Milne, E. Scott, & J. McAteer. (2018). The relationship between a trusted adult and adolescent outcomes: A protocol of a scoping review. Systematic Reviews, 7(207).

x M. Ungar (2013). The impact of youth-adult relationships on resilience. International Journal of Child, Youth and Family Studies, 4(3), 328–336.

xi D. J. Shernoff, & J. A. Schmidt (2008). Further evidence of an engagement-achievement paradox among U.S. high school students. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 37, 564–580.