Without sports, will more students disengage from school?

As of October 2020 data, 62.4 percent of Minnesota households with children reported using online distance learning. Unfortunately, surveys, research, and student grades show that remote learning has had many shortcomings, including thousands of students disengaging all together from school.

With many school districts planning to remain in distance learning at least until January 2021, and now with in-person youth sports activities paused at least through December 18, there is concern that more students will disengage from school and drop out. According to Greg Toppo with The 74:

The widespread loss of school sports this fall, along with activities like drama, band and debate, is ringing alarm bells for educators nationwide, who worry that these activities serve a vital, unspoken purpose: They keep kids engaged in school. The necessity of postponing, minimizing, or canceling them due to Covid-19 puts millions of kids at greater risk of dropping out or falling behind.

Johns Hopkins University education researcher Robert Balfanz has studied data and research on high school dropouts for years and notes that students need connections with adults and their peers—connections that are often found through sports or other extracurriculars. He tells Toppo:

“It’s in drama, debate and the football team,” he said, “It’s doing something that you think is bigger than yourself.”

“You could argue that on all of those points, losing access to those student activities is pretty important to a kid’s sense of connection to school,” Balfanz said. For educators to be concerned that this will create more disconnection for kids, he said, “is very logical.”

And it’s not just educators who are concerned. A Facebook page called Let Them Play MN has amassed 22,000 sports parent members.

Research over the past several decades shows that “participating in sports has a direct effect on high school students’ academic performance” and that freshman year is when students often decide whether they are going to drop out of high school or stick it out for four years, Toppo continues. Sports and other activities are when they build relationships not only with fellow students but with adults that can help keep them engaged in school. For this year’s freshmen, “most didn’t get the chance over the summer to work out with a sports team or rehearse with the marching band.” And for students who mainly do well enough in school to stay eligible for sports, distance learning hasn’t proved to be the best motivator for that either.

The week of Walz’s announcement that sports would be paused the Minnesota Department of Health said it had traced 157 outbreaks to youth and high school sports, reported the Pioneer Press, with health officials announcing that “at least 10 percent of cases in school” were associated with a sports outbreak. So, the sports-related outbreaks are a subset of the cases in schools that are open.

How do those numbers compare overall? As of the November 19 report (the last report before the sports pause went into effect), the cumulative total of cases associated with pre-K through grade 12 school buildings (students and staff) reported since August 1 numbered 6,355. That is less than three percent (2.89 percent) of the total positive cases statewide within that same timeframe.