Sign on, Zoom in, Drop Out: Pandemic Sparks Fears That Without Sports and Other Activities, Students Will Disengage from School

This autumn, at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, the renowned Ultimate Frisbee teams are compelled to "practice" through Zoom due to the current circumstances. Over the past three years, the team has consistently ranked among the top 10 in the state and even placed in the top 25 nationally in 2018. However, with virtual learning being the norm for schools citywide, SLA athletes are limited to sharing virtual workouts, engaging in remote discussions with sports nutritionists, and reviewing previous game footage.

Co-captain Anthony Nelson, a graduating senior known as Tone, finds this situation far from satisfying. He expresses his longing for his teammates, particularly for the incoming freshmen who are unaware of the team’s exceptionalism.

The widespread cancellation of school sports this season, as well as other extracurricular activities like drama, band, and debate, is causing concern among educators nationwide. They believe that these activities serve an essential, unspoken purpose by keeping students engaged in school. Unfortunately, the postponement, reduction, or cancellation of these activities due to Covid-19 puts millions of kids at a higher risk of dropping out or falling behind.

Robert Balfanz, an educational researcher from Johns Hopkins University who has extensively studied high school dropouts, emphasizes the significance of having a few supportive adults and peers in a student’s school life. These connections, often formed through sports and other extracurriculars, play a crucial role in their academic success and graduation. Balfanz explains that participating in activities such as drama, debate, or being part of a football team provides students with a sense of purpose beyond themselves. Additionally, sports and extracurriculars create a more inclusive and welcoming atmosphere for students who may feel like they don’t belong.

Balfanz points out that losing access to these activities is detrimental to students’ sense of connection to school, making educators rightfully concerned about increased disengagement among students during these challenging times.

A significant number of students are attending virtual school this fall. In a poll conducted in September, 58 percent of public school parents reported that their children are learning entirely online. This percentage may be even higher for students of color. Since the start of the pandemic, educators have been focused on addressing learning loss, often referred to as the "Covid slide." However, prolonged school closures have brought attention to an equally important issue: the loss of student engagement, which plays a crucial role in keeping them motivated to stay in school and learn.

Recent survey findings indicate that students across the board are spending considerably less time participating in sports. The Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program discovered that young people between the ages of 6 and 18 were only engaging in 7.2 hours of sports per week in September, compared to 13.6 hours before the pandemic. The report also highlighted a significant decrease in free play, practices, and competitions. Game time has declined by 59 percent, while practice hours have decreased by 54 percent. Although there has been a slight increase in these figures since June, the authors of the report issued a cautionary note, stating that nearly three in ten youths now have no interest in returning to their primary sport prior to the pandemic.

High school graduation rates have been steadily improving over the past decade. However, experts are concerned that student disengagement caused by the pandemic could reverse this progress and lead to higher dropout rates.

Research over the years has consistently shown that participating in sports directly impacts academic performance among high school students. A study conducted in Kansas in 2012 revealed that 80.1 percent of high school athletes had GPAs of 3.0 or higher, compared to 70.5 percent for non-athletes. Even as far back as 2001, researchers in North Carolina found that high school athletes had a dropout rate of only 0.6 percent, while non-athletes had a rate of 10.3 percent.

Douglas Fulton, the principal of Freedom High School in Loudoun County, Virginia, expresses specific concern that students are missing out on the physical and mental health benefits of sports and other activities this fall. He believes that providing students with a few hours where they can engage in creative problem-solving and skill-building, without focusing on traditional classwork, significantly enhances their academic performance and connection to school. Fulton emphasizes that just like adults, students benefit from having time to unwind and not think about work, as this ultimately improves their productivity.

He reiterated Nelson’s concerns, expressing his utmost worry about the incoming freshmen. Research indicates that this is a crucial period during which students often decide whether to drop out or continue their education for the next four years until graduation.

For the freshmen at Freedom High School, the summer did not provide them with the opportunity to engage in sports teams or marching band rehearsals. Typically, these activities allow them to establish connections with older students during the summer program, which includes 10th, 11th, and 12th graders. Unlike this year, where freshmen were not integrated with other grade levels in activities such as football and volleyball teams. Consequently, these students have had a harder time adjusting to high school life in their first semester due to the absence of these connections.

The impact of the pandemic extends beyond sports and marching band activities. The limitations on group gatherings and travel restrictions have reshaped the overall possibilities of students’ school experiences. One such student is Téa Fortune from Garfield High School in Seattle. Her senior year was supposed to be marked by two incredible trips to Shanghai and the American South to study the civil rights movement. Unfortunately, both trips were canceled due to Covid-19, and her classes have transitioned to online learning. The absence of her friends has made it significantly challenging for her. Despite this, she remains committed to her education and is even taking college classes. However, her senior year is not unfolding as she had hoped, with spirit day now taking place on Zoom.

Laura Kassner, a senior education researcher at SRI International in Virginia, highlights the effectiveness of offering students "passion projects" that connect their schoolwork with future college and career success in preventing dropouts. The federal Institute of Education Sciences also emphasizes the importance of personalized learning environments that foster strong relationships between staff and students, as well as engaging students and teaching them how to overcome challenges. Kassner shares an example where high school students in Richmond created a mini Zoom school, offering enrichment classes to younger students in subjects like yoga, dance, and Greek mythology. This not only benefitted the younger students but also provided the high schoolers with valuable teaching experience and opportunities to enhance their resumes and college essays.

At the Science Leadership Academy (SLA), a public magnet high school in Philadelphia, Chris Lehmann, the varsity head coach of Ultimate Frisbee and founding principal, is deeply dissatisfied with the current situation. He emphasizes the importance of maintaining a sense of community, but due to the restrictions, they are unable to play the game. Nevertheless, SLA has managed to maintain a high attendance rate of 97%. Lehmann doesn’t immediately worry about dropouts among his current students, but acknowledges that for many, this year has been extremely challenging and disappointing without extracurricular activities like sports.

Lehmann, a renowned educator who advocates for inquiry- and project-based learning, bluntly states that the loss of these activities, which serve as important connections, has had a devastating impact on students. He passionately asserts that this situation is detrimental to the well-being of students.

In order to maintain the interest of students, the teacher has reduced the number of virtual class sessions they need to attend each week. However, there is concern among him and others that remote schooling is placing a strain on families’ home lives and WiFi capabilities, putting certain students at a disadvantage.

Despite this, the teacher has made it a priority to have one-on-one meetings with students, where they can advise and check in on each student for 15 minutes per week. He believes this is crucial in creating a supportive environment where no student is left behind.

Zoe Siswick, a counselor at the school, has been trying to keep her athletes engaged by organizing events on sports nutrition and bringing in guest speakers. She also encourages students to work out together virtually. Siswick highlights the importance of building connections between adults and students to prevent dropout rates. However, she worries that this semester could be disastrous for many Philadelphia students who only manage to do the minimum to stay eligible for sports.

Siswick recently covered a colleague’s remote class and was disheartened to see that only two students had their Zoom cameras turned on. She described it as a lonely experience, feeling like she was speaking into the void. Her colleague confirmed that this lack of engagement was typical.

Interestingly, after the class ended, three students who used to have lunch with Siswick every day stayed behind and turned their cameras on. This small moment of normalcy brought back memories of how things used to be.

Margie Castejon Gamez, a senior at the school, plays soccer and is also the captain of the girls’ lacrosse team. She and her classmates are working on developing a student-driven help line to provide tutoring and support. Gamez explains that sometimes motivation is lacking in online classes compared to being physically present in a classroom.

Unlike other schools, SLA has experience dealing with major disruptions. Last year, they had to temporarily relocate due to asbestos removal in their old building. Gamez believes that this experience has made SLA students more adept at navigating remote schooling. She sees logging into online classes as a straightforward task.

Gamez mentions that her soccer team now meets on Zoom and discusses workouts, diet, and motivation. They also call each other to compare notes. However, she misses being out on the field because it allows her to express herself emotionally without judgment.

Kassner, the researcher, points out that high school students have had a taste of freedom during school closures. It is crucial to provide them with something meaningful to hold onto now in order to prevent them from disconnecting.

As schools focus on helping students reach graduation, Kassner suggests harnessing positive peer pressure among students. She believes that promoting a message of unity and togetherness will be beneficial.

She emphasizes the importance of students connecting with each other for a better educational experience.


  • rowandavid

    I am a 32-year-old educational blogger and student. I love to share my knowledge and experiences with others through writing. I believe that knowledge is power, and I am passionate about helping others learn and grow.