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Preventing Students from Dropping Out During COVID-19 School Closures

April 2020

With high school graduation rates up and dropout rates down over the past decade, educators are concerned that school closures could hurt this progress. REL West’s BethAnn Berliner spoke with one of the nation’s leading dropout prevention scholars, Dr. Russell W. Rumberger, to discuss students vulnerable to dropping out. Rumberger is Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Director of the California Dropout Research Project, and a member of the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences panel that produced the 2008 and 2017 practice guides on evidence-based dropout prevention. Here’s what he had to say.

BethAnn: Students at risk of dropping out are already on an academic slippery slope. What are you most worried about now that school campuses are closed due to COVID-19?

Russ: I think the pandemic is exposing inequities—kids not having internet access or a quiet space to study or their basic needs met. This is a setup for not doing well in school or being on a pathway forward in any direction. It’s amplified things by putting their families in more dire circumstances in terms of unemployment and food insecurity, conditions that can hamper students’ willingness and ability to learn and to succeed in school. I worry that under these and remote learning conditions the number of kids who don’t finish high school might increase. Students vulnerable to dropping out may “check out” since—in at least some districts—grades are being frozen or failing grades are being eliminated, and there are limited opportunities for social interaction with peers and teachers.

I’m also worried that the learning requirements, not just for would-be dropouts but for all students, are being diluted. So even if a student graduates this year, under present conditions they’ll have reduced learning.

“These students need to know that we believe they can graduate and that we’ll help them to get there.”

BethAnn: Over the years we’ve learned a lot about effective dropout prevention. What should educators focus on now so that vulnerable students have a way forward when schools reopen?

Russ: There are two areas that need attention. One is academic support. This is where dropout prevention programs really step up. Students who struggle academically might need individual help or tutoring to master the material. These kids really need to have incentives and support to improve their grades. The other is the social-emotional area, of having somebody who cares about them, having a human connection; somebody who is in contact with them frequently, and is encouraging and supportive. We know that having a sense of belonging is key for succeeding in school. It’s really hard to make up the kind of personal and social aspects of the learning environment in a distance learning situation.

BethAnn: Students at risk of dropping out are typically far behind in course credits. What’s your take on how credit recovery or “catch up” efforts are currently working?

Russ: It’s still unclear how schools are delivering credit recovery programs. Schools are so focused on, and maybe rightly so, just getting the distance learning apparatus up and running, that students not in the mainstream may be unnoticed. Credit recovery is for classes that students already failed, and they tend to already be online and self-guided, but with instructional support from teachers. Students at risk of dropping out don’t necessarily have the motivation, the discipline, and the time management skills to succeed purely online, and they may need somebody to push them a little bit, to monitor them, and maybe to set short-term goals with them.

BethAnn: With school campuses closed, students miss out on academics and on other school-based supports. How can educators support holistic student needs to promote attendance and learning during the current situation?   

Russ: The living conditions for many kids right now are really hard. It’s just some ungodly amount of hardship for more and more people. There’s the stress of poverty, unemployed parents, food insecurity, and health concerns. And students are supposed to be learning at home and having a quiet place to study, you can just see why they’d be distracted and distressed, why schooling may just not be that important. What I really think students on the verge of dropping out need is a consistent personal touch. Somebody reaching out to them daily.

BethAnn: While schools and districts are focused on meeting the frontline needs of students, states are also responding. Are there dropout prevention policies that are being reconsidered, or should be?

Russ: There’s a lot of discussion right now about grading, testing, and graduation policies. Given the current public health situation, there might be an argument for resurfacing discussion about reporting a six-year graduation rate as a legitimate indicator of both student and high school performance. Why not? It may take some students a little longer to graduate now, but students, schools, and districts could get full recognition for getting kids to graduate, even if it takes six years. 

BethAnn: Any final thoughts?

Russ: Students vulnerable to dropping out need to know that they matter. What we need is a public campaign to help them stick with school. The message could be “stay home, stay in school, stay with your studies, and don’t back off from the goal of a high school diploma because the economy will recover. There will be a lot of jobs that require some kind of postsecondary training, and the way to access them is by first finishing high school.” These students need to know that we believe they can graduate and that we’ll help them get there.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences funds a network of 10 Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs). Each REL serves a designated region of the country and works with educators and policymakers to support a more evidence-based education system. In response to COVID-19, the RELs have collaborated to produce a series of evidence-based resources and guidance about teaching and learning in a remote environment, as well as other considerations brought by the pandemic. To access these resources, visit https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/edlabs/projects/covid-19. This blog was prepared for the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0012 by Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) West at WestEd. The content of the publication does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.