The pandemic has been tough on everybody, but particularly so on Black students. They’ve seen their parents, grandparents, and other caregivers disproportionately die from COVID-19, and they’ve witnessed the stress of family members — nurses, Amazon warehouse workers, restaurant staff — working frontline jobs that can’t be done remotely. 

This put the onus on Black youths to do more around the house, whether it was caring for younger siblings, taking on domestic responsibilities, or even getting jobs of their own. Plus, on top of having to share internet access with siblings or not having access altogether, it was harder for Black students to join classes virtually.

“Particularly high school students usually take the brunt of taking care of their siblings. So they backed out and decided that I will perhaps do this later on, but right now, my focus is on younger siblings, my family,” says Dr. Lynn Jennings, senior director of national and state partnerships at The Education Trust

And now it’s high school graduation season. 

Across the country, millions of high school seniors are signing yearbooks, preparing their caps and gowns, and getting ready to embark on the next chapter of their lives — unless they’re one of these Black teenagers whose education got disrupted. It’s no wonder experts are worried that high school graduation rates for Black youths might drop.

Graduation Rates Were Down in 2021 After a Bump in 2020

The class of 2022 was in its sophomore year when COVID-19 sent students home to attend school through virtual classrooms. In many ways, this cohort will be able to provide better indications of what learning impacts the pandemic had on students. 

During the 2021/2022 school year, students were back to largely attending classes in-person, and prior academic requirements that had been relaxed were returning to pre-pandemic standards.

“This is a year we should pay a lot of attention to the high school graduation rates,” says Dr.  Jennings. “These aren’t the students who were necessarily in the thick of it, in terms of school closures and the disruption.”

Contrary to what might be the expected response to the start of a pandemic, national graduate rates were up in spring 2020 compared to 2019.

A Brookings study, which analyzed 57% of the nation’s school population, found that graduation rates increased in 2020 before returning to pre-pandemic levels in 2021. The uptick in 2020 might have been caused by states waiving or loosening graduation requirements, according to a Chalkbeat report, which saw graduation rates dip in at least 20 states in 2021.

Though the rates are changing by 3 percentage points at most — which might seem small — Dr. Diarese George, the founder and executive director of the Tennessee Educators of Color Alliance, says we need to remember a single percentage point change can equate to thousands of students who didn’t earn their high school diploma.

“It’s a big deal,” George says. Though he’s seeing enrollment numbers constantly going up in Tennessee, “that dip of 1,000 students is still significant.”

“Primary research is showing that definitely, during that time — when we were in the thick of the pandemic — the graduation requirements were relaxed,” Jennings says. States reduced their standards, relaxing credit requirements, graduation exam requirements, and even attendance. “We can expect, as you’re going through it, that teachers were probably a little bit more relaxed in terms of their expectations of high school students during that time, and particularly graduates, given what they were going through.”

Following the start of citywide stay-at-home orders and remote learning in March 2020, districts almost uniformly waived graduation requirements and told students that if they were on track to graduate in March, were passing their classes, and had enough credits, they were able to graduate.

“That benefited a few students in a positive way,” says Dr. Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.

 “Unfortunately, in 2021, when we now had the full year of the pandemic, plus the first part of that year before, it was a different situation.”

Graduation Rates Are Lower Among Black Students

Going back to 2007, there was a rapid and then steady growth of graduation rates across the country through 2019, Balfanz says. The jump was from around 73% up to 86%, and it was largely driven by Black, Latino, and low-income students. 

For example, if we look at the nine states (California, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Texas, and Washington) and the District of Columbia that are home to Word In Black publishers, Black and Hispanic students consistently saw lower graduation rates than their white and Asian peers in 2021. 

A Word In Black analysis found the average graduation rate for Black students in these states was 77.5% and 78.5% for Hispanic students, compared to 89.2% for white students and a 93.6% graduation rate for Asian students.

But, among the subgroups it studied, the Brookings report saw graduation rates increase among Black students. There was a nearly 2% increase in the rate of Black graduates from 2019 to 2020, followed by a 2.5% fall in 2021.

This group of students faced the highest levels of virtual schooling, and they were more likely to take on responsibilities of supporting their families or helping younger siblings with school.

“The concern there is we know that this is basically the impact of the pandemic,” Balfanz says, “and we know the pandemic hit low-income and minority communities the most.”

What Happens to Students Who Don’t Graduate?

Many students who don’t graduate in four years do try again for one more year, Balfanz says. But, as with many things, the pandemic shifted priorities for many people.

For some, getting a job to help support their families gave them a sense of agency — and it was something they could balance with virtual classes. And for others, especially following the country’s focus on race in the summer of 2020, they were able to escape an environment that had never been welcoming or supportive.

The way the education system is set up is not always reflective or supportive of Black students, George says. 

“Folks who are already on this pathway where the system was not taking care of them with the due diligence that they needed to — and, in many regards, may have already been failing them — was exacerbated. And I think that plays a huge role,” George says. “The interruption in learning, compounded with the trauma that they may have experienced year after year, that probably played a role in folks’ inability or their willingness to even want to come to school.”

Experts Predict Lower Graduation Rates In June

Unfortunately, predictions are that graduation rates will still be down this year.

“I think it’s probably going to still be in that 1-3 point range, but bigger in some districts than others, and more for low-income and minority students because they bore the brunt of the pandemic,” Balfanz says. But he’s hopeful the rebound is coming. “Folks are resilient. Schools are resilient. I’m hopeful that it’s a blip and not a long-lasting trend.”

Once you leave the K-12 system and you don’t enter higher ed, you’re sort of on your own.

Dr. Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center

Jennings says she expects rates to remain mostly steady, except for a potential decline for Black students.

“This will be able to tell us a better sense of the impact that the pandemic has had because now we’re moving to the point of how do you recover from this?” Jennings says. “There’s always a way to look at what worked because you see some bright spots.”

So What Can We Do?

A key focus for educators is bringing back students who were lost during the shuffle of the pandemic. There needs to be “on-ramps” for them to feel welcomed back into schooling. Certain states have made “real efforts” to find those students and bring them back to school, Jennings says. But there need to be creative ways of getting education back into their lives, like virtual schooling, night classes, or other flexibility in schedules.

In Tennessee, it’s a conversation George is having with state partners. They’re looking for ways to find students who weren’t accounted for during graduation and getting them back on track through adult learning or pathways to pick up where they left off.

“Once you leave the K-12 system and you don’t enter higher ed, you’re sort of on your own,” Balfanz says. “We need to give them ways to move forward even though they bore the brunt of the pandemic’s impacts.”