When his father lost his job last year, Togi, then 16, wasted little time before looking for work to support his family, even though he knew it could put him at risk of contracting COVID-19.
He ended up working at a fast-food restaurant in a suburb of Washington, juggling the job with attending school held online as the world’s largest COVID-19 outbreak tore through the United States.
“It’s exhausting,” Togi said, describing long days spent between school and work, leaving little time for the teenager to socialise.
The twin health and economic crises caused by the pandemic in the United States have forced some teenagers to take on odd jobs, mostly in the fast food industry, while trying to keep up with the demands of virtual schooling.
Educators say many students have fallen off schools’ radar, and may not return to classrooms when in-person learning resumes as the pandemic ebbs.
Most students are Black or Hispanic — “communities that were disproportionately affected by the pandemic, both in the numbers of infections and deaths,” said Elmer G. Roldan, executive director of Communities In Schools of Los Angeles, which works to stop young people from dropping out.
Students from families whose parents are undocumented and not able to access government relief measures enacted during the pandemic are also facing pressure to work, he said.
There are no official statistics for how many students may end up leaving school to work.
Hailly Korman, a senior associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, which is focused on improving schooling, said some students have simply been unable to avoid working, after parents or caregivers lost work due to the virus.
“These kids are not working because that’s fun, or they’re making lots of money. They’re working because they have financial needs that need to be met. And if the choice is go to work, or your family is out on the street, that’s not a choice at all,” she said.
Teachers and professionals in the CIS Network have said the number of high school students working has increased dramatically during the pandemic, and the hours of those already working has increased to as much as 35 hours per-week.
“Legally, students are supposed to work no more than 20 hours if they are working part time,” but in practice, “it’s hard to monitor,” Roldan said.
Johanna, a 17-year-old high school student in Los Angeles, works in a fast food restaurant, balancing the job that pays around $450 per-week with attending class online.
She sometimes stays up until midnight to finish work, with only Wednesdays and Saturdays off, but says she’s intent on finishing her studies.
“I know if I drop out of school… I’m just going to keep working at a restaurant,” said Johanna, who hopes to be a music therapist.
Yet Korman says many working students won’t be able to hold on.
“What we’ve done is created an environment where the decision to leave school to work feels even easier,” she said.
Hardest hit are students who were already struggling academically, and who have dropped out during the time when schools were closed.
One high school teacher in Washington who instructs students learning English, said one of her students has already dropped out, and refuses to say why.
“Like a lot of the kids who did drop out, they’re deeply, deeply ashamed about it. It’s like super disappointing for them,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity because she’s not permitted to speak to the press.
Togi and Johanna are both good students and committed to finishing their studies despite their challenges.
“Working at this job actually really taught me how school is important,” said Togi, who has organised his days meticulously to allow him to make basketball practice, the sport he loves.
“To see some of my coworkers, who are probably 30 or 40 years old, doing this everyday with no breaks, nothing, that’s not what I want to do,” he said.
But there’s no getting around the importance of the $300 to $350 he brings home from the job each week, which pays for food for himself and his 13-year-old brother his family otherwise couldn’t afford, even though they receive food assistance from the government.
Korman said the upheavals of the pandemic should give educators pause to think about how they can restructure learning to retain students who come from poor families and are tempted to work.
“How do we maintain some of the good strategies, so that someone could be doing one class at a time every night for an hour… and working towards high school completion?” she asked.