The COVID-19 Recession Risks Facing Working High School Students: Stress, Disengagement — And Dropping Out?
One night in late March, Juan Constantino was helping his mother cook dinner — and mulling a drastic step to help his tiny family.
It's just Juan and his mom at home, and he could sense the coronavirus pandemic had seriously tightened the household's finances. The doughnut shop in Huntington Park where his mom works had cut her hours. Sometimes, Juan — who just turned 17 last week — would have to fork over cash so they could get through the grocery line.
So that night in the kitchen, Juan asked her: Mom, what if I don't go to school?
"My whole goal in that conversation," he recalled, "was to convince her to let me drop out."
There was a certain logic to Juan's idea: his mom was earning less during the COVID-19 crisis — and Juan was working a lot more.
Before the pandemic, he worked just evenings and weekends for his brother's dad, who runs a mobile locksmith and auto repair shop. Now, Juan is basically working as a full-time apprentice, taking home a cut of each day's earnings — anywhere from nothing to $60, depending on business.
"I really did try to convince her," Juan remembered. "I was getting money, and you know ... I'm feeling good about this, I don't need school."
His mom's reaction? She laughed at him — and gave Juan a half-hour-long talking-to that convinced him to give up any idea of dropping out with these words:
"You're nothing without going to school."
'I'M WORRIED THEY WON'T COME BACK'
As summer break begins and the economy dips into recession, principals at some Los Angeles public schools in low-income neighborhoods are beginning to ask an uncomfortable question about working-age students such as Juan: Could some of them be at risk of dropping out?
Consider: these students "might be the only people in the family bringing in income," says Cynthia Gonzalez, the principal of Juan's high school in South L.A.
One survey suggests more than half of the families in the Los Angeles Unified School District have endured a job loss during the pandemic. As a result, many working-age students went looking for work — or picked up more hours at jobs they already held — because their families needed help covering living expenses.
"For kids that are not seniors ... I'm worried that they won't come back" next fall, said Gonzalez, head of the Communications and Technology School at LAUSD's Diego Rivera Learning Complex.
"They're helping their families. They're making money," Gonzalez figures. "And so if a student starts to feel like, Do I really need to get a high school diploma when I'm working construction, or doing electrical work already, or carpentry? ... Why do I need to go back to school?"
Gonzalez worries especially about working students who are already short on credits, or students who are also living in the U.S. without legal authorization, who are ineligible for federal stimulus benefits.
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Several principals at L.A. high schools said they shared Gonzalez's concern that the lure of paid employment might cause some students to drift away from school — though some told KPCC/LAist anonymously they aren't as concerned as Gonzalez about working students going so far as dropping out.
Two research experts also said Gonzalez is onto something: While it's not clear how many working students will drop out because of the coronavirus crisis, the number is not likely to be trivial.
"It's hard to say," said Molly Scott, a researcher at the Urban Institute. "I would definitely say it's not minor. What is the unemployment rate in your city right now? How many of those folks have kids?"
"I think there may be lots of kids like that," said Russell Rumberger, a professor emeritus and dropout researcher at UC Santa Barbara, "who maybe aren't so engaged with their learning, they don't really like the online learning stuff anyway, so they might be enticed to go to work instead."
But both Rumberger and Scott both say there's even more dropout risk attached to a broader question: Can schools re-engage students who've fallen behind in core courses while campuses were closed?
If high schools don't succeed in that task, it won't only be working students we'll have to worry about.
'I DON'T WANT TO MESS UP MY LIFE'
There's no plexiglass sneeze-guard between Juan Constantino and his customers to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
There are no tape lines to mark out appropriate "social distances" on the sidewalk where Juan and his brother's dad set up shop most days.
Hand sanitizer is a squirt bottle of soapy water.
Juan's workplace is a white utility van parked on a side street in South L.A. near the Alameda Swap Meet, their space claimed by a flapping vertical "LOCKSMITH" flag. His job is hands-on auto repair, and close contact with customers is hard to avoid.
"You get kind of scared sometimes," Juan admitted, "when there are people coming up without masks and stuff. But you deal with it. You're not going to lose a customer over it ...
"If it means putting your life at risk, money is money here."
Juan has been around the business since he was little. He remembers sitting in the back of the van as an 8-year-old, watching and learning. A few months before the pandemic, Juan approached his brother's dad about becoming an actual employee.
Juan takes pride in his work — and even sees a future in locksmithing or auto repair, either as an occupation or as a "side profession if I do decide to go for a career or college."
Juan is also a bright student. Despite the momentary-but-serious consideration he gave to dropping out, Juan knows his mom was correct that night in the kitchen: his future prospects drop off sharply without a high school diploma.
"I don't want to mess up my life," he said, "because I [didn't want to] go to school."
But the pandemic is only the latest academic hurdle Juan has faced.
During his sophomore year, Juan transferred schools twice — and lost several core academic credits in the process. Last fall, he took Saturday classes to make up those missing credits. Juan had just gotten back on track this spring when the pandemic hit.
Juan didn't regain his stride in distance learning. He's lost track of how many Zoom lessons he missed — and when he did log in, he'd lose focus easily. It feels like there's twice the work now, he said: the work involved in comprehending the material, which teachers normally handled during their in-class lectures; and the assignments that teachers give you to prove you learned it.
"Homework from all the classes was piling up," said Juan, sitting on a folding chair outside the utility van. "Work here started piling up."
Though he's quick to admit his struggles, Juan ended the semester with several A's and B's. Despite all he'd missed, LAUSD's lenient pandemic grading policy prevented his grades from backsliding.
Gonzalez said Juan will have to improve one grade he got in an English class if he wants to qualify for admission to a four-year state university. On Monday, Juan called his principal to ask about recovering the credit in a summer school course.
Juan said he had meant to log on to complete final exams. But by the time he logged on, friends told him the school year was already over.
'THROWN INTO THE FIRE'
While the coronavirus crisis may be unusual, many of the risk factors facing working-class students are well-known. Students who work longer hours are less likely to stay in school. Students who work more than part-time are more likely to drop out.
Ten high school students spoke to KPCC/LAist about their experiences working during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To be clear: none of these students appeared to be at risk of dropping out.
But when their schools moved to distance learning mode, most of these students used newly-flexible schedules to take on more hours at work.
Paola Onofre, a recent high school graduate from Arleta, has recently seen her hours at In-N-Out nearly double — partially because of the pandemic, partially because she turned 18. She needed the hours: Paola and her older sister take care of rent — and her older sister was furloughed from a beauty salon for about two months.
"It was kind of a lot to take in," Onofre remembered. "At first, my sister got the stimulus check and she [said], 'That's not going to be enough for the month.'"
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Kimberly Rochin, soon to be a senior at Azusa High, didn't expect to be working more than 25 hours a week at Chick-Fil-A; she got her job in February, and new hires don't usually get that many hours: "I kinda got thrown into the fire when this pandemic started."
Vidal Reynoso, who just graduated from John Glenn High School in Norwalk, decided to spend more days working with his dad — a general contractor and handyman. The family relies on his dad's income, and he was getting fewer calls for work.
"I felt like I could spend my time much better if I went with him to help support the family," Reynoso said, "and get his jobs done quicker."
A few of the students said the pandemic had actually made it easier to balance school, work and life.
Duarte High School student Sara Jones appreciated how the pandemic condensed her school day down to essentials. Jones can now manage three hours of relaxation between school and her shifts at the Sonic Drive-In — and she still consistently clocks 40 hours a week. Before, she'd have to rush from campus to work.
"Distance learning was easier for me," said Jones, who starts her senior year in the fall.
But many working students reported experiences like Juan Constantino's: with wide variation in the quality of online instruction, and increased stress and pressure at home, school went on the back burner.
'WHAT WE'RE GETTING EXCITED ABOUT'
Russell Rumberger — the UCSB professor emeritus who, by the way, founded the California Dropout Research Project — is concerned about how working students will fare in school after the pandemic.
But Rumberger's broader fear is that schools will face a "medium-term" crisis in dropouts as each grade of the current high school population successively reaches graduation age.
While this year's seniors may be spared because of no-fail or hold-harmless grading policies, Rumberger fears what will happen in future years if students return next fall unprepared for the next course in a sequence — say, the move up from Algebra I to Algebra II — and schools are unable to get students back on track.
"If they haven't mastered learning materials this year and in their next year," Rumberger said, "they could really be behind the eight-ball."
Molly Scott of the Urban Institute contended that one of the reasons students from economically-vulnerable backgrounds drop out is "because schools are inflexible": students who can't juggle school along with childcare, employment and other responsibilities often don't get help until it's too late.
Schools "only give you [an alternative] option after things are so bad that you're behind and basically set up to fail," said Scott. "That's a big problem."
What interests — and excites — Scott about the COVID-19 crisis is that school systems seem to be open to changes that would help these populations.
"Pre-COVID," according to Scott, schools often said, "'We don't have any capacity to make any changes. We can't think about credit hours in a different way. We can't have kids take classes online. We couldn't possibly make packets for kids to take home for class.'"
Now, schools are contemplating all of those changes — in part out of necessity.
In most of Southern California, if campuses reopen in the fall, many schools are likely to adopt "hybrid schedules," meaning students will rotate between learning in classrooms on some days and working from home on others.
Cynthia Gonzalez, the South L.A. high school principal, is excited about the change. Hybrid schedules could open the door for huge shifts that would be good for working students: more learning at a student's own pace, more flexible scheduling and — with fewer students in a classroom at a time — more individualized instruction.
"There are opportunities, being online, to actually do a better job at closing those gaps," said Gonzalez, "if it's done correctly."