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Six Ways State and District Leaders Can Support Graduating Seniors During the Coronavirus Pandemic

The graduating Class of 2020 never would have imagined their lives would be upended by a global pandemic.

When the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) closed their schools, these soon-to-be graduates were preparing to enter their final term of compulsory education and making critical decisions about their next steps—whether to pursue employment opportunities, take a gap year, join the military, continue or start employment training and education, or sign a financial aid award letter and select which college to attend. Not surprisingly, many students are reconsidering their college offers amid unexpected financial pressures resulting from the pandemic. However, for historically underserved students who are the least likely to graduate from high school ready for college and careers, the full impact of the pandemic may not be known for quite some time.

As states continue managing this crisis, the Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed) recommends that state education leaders offer flexibility and additional supports for the transition to postsecondary education to mitigate what could be compounding socioeconomic losses for historically underserved communities. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Stimulus (CARES) Act provides roughly $31 billion in an Education Stabilization Fund for states, colleges, universities, and school districts to support students through and beyond the pandemic. This next phase is critically important, and the policies states put in place to support students during this time will have lasting consequences.

We recommend state and district leaders use CARES Act funds to prioritize the following strategies to support historically underserved high school seniors.

1. Develop graduation guidance related to COVID-19 disruptions.

As reported recently, many states have posted guidance on the flexibility they either are offering or encouraging school districts to use to ensure graduating high school seniors have every opportunity to earn a diploma this year despite national school closures. A number of states are promoting pass/fail and credit/no-credit grading policies in lieu of traditional grades and suspending high-stakes exams for the Class of 2020.

For example, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, and New Mexico are encouraging flexible grading approaches, while Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee are among the states that have removed the requirement for factoring end-of-course assessments into a student’s final grade. Approaches such as these ensure students are not unfairly penalized and diplomas withheld due to circumstances beyond their control.

2. Conduct graduation status outreach to high school seniors and their families.

Several states and districts are prioritizing outreach and supports for high school seniors. Albuquerque (New Mexico) Public Schools put in place a specific strategy to support high school seniors—both students on track to graduate and those with graduation requirement deficits. Seniors who were passing as of April 8, 2020, will receive ongoing instruction and will work with their teachers and counselors on a graduation plan. Meanwhile, students who were not passing will have additional opportunities to demonstrate competency and will complete a Next Step Plan to get them on track for graduation, which could include summer school and continuing their high school course work in the 2020–2021 school year.

3. Provide counseling, academic assistance, and other individualized supports to high school seniors.

Many students who are most at-risk of not graduating are students who lack the necessary guidance, academic support, and resources to do well in school under normal circumstances. This pandemic has exacerbated that challenge. School districts like Oakland (California) Unified School District (OUSD) are rising to this challenge by distributing items to meet students’ basic needs. OUSD has distributed more than 1 million meals, more than 8,000 personal care items, and has coordinated more than 1,000 telehealth visits across three community-based school clinics.

4. Organize virtual college counseling and financial aid support for students and families.

Given the disruptions in the K–12 and higher education systems, states must innovate to stymie decreases in college enrollment and declines in completion rates for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). Since mid-March, all states and the District of Columbia have seen decreases in FAFSA® completion compared with this time last year. To address this challenge, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education has extended its FAFSA® deadline and organized two virtual “#FASFAFrenzy” events for graduating seniors.

5. Implement summer bridge programs.

Summer bridge programs help fill gaps in learning as students transition from high school to college. Even though most campuses will be closed to in-person learning this summer, colleges still can offer opportunities for students who are credit-deficient to complete high school course work and get on-track for college. A partnership between the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Los Angeles Community College District allows seniors who are a few credits short from the school district’s graduation requirements to participate in free online summer classes to earn dual credit.

6. Coordinate with public systems of higher education.

As students transition to college during this unprecedented time—and schools and universities establish grading policies and high school graduation and college admissions requirements—alignment between the K–12 and the higher education system is paramount. In California, leaders of the K–12 and college and university systems are partnering to ensure students are held harmless from the impacts of school closures. As California school districts use their local flexibility to issue pass/fail or credit/no credit grades, the college and university systems are accepting credit/no-credit grades in lieu of traditional letter grades for fall courses.

As states and school districts implement their long-term strategy to deliver an equitable education to all students under this new reality, we humbly implore education leaders to direct their efforts and resources toward prioritizing the most vulnerable students during this time. Although the recommendations offered here offer guidance for today’s seniors—these same strategies can be implemented for future graduating classes to thoughtfully and equitably prepare them for postsecondary education.

Monica Almond, PhD, is a senior associate for policy development and government relations at All4Ed.