After a school year punctuated by coronavirus quarantines, Zoom lessons and days away from her friends, Caia Rivera, 7, will be spending at least part of her Florida summer back in the classroom.
Her classes and other enrichment activities at her Miami-area elementary school come courtesy of her mother’s desire to keep her mind sharp— and more than $1 billion in federal funding to dramatically expand summer learning for millions of kids.
“I’ve noticed both with my kids and my friends’ kids that this pandemic has caused kids to feel isolated and anxious, so having the ability to be interacting with people outside of the home can only do good in the long run,” said Caia’s mom, Cynthia Klimekoski, 37. “They were able to still have classes through Zoom, but I know with my daughter, she does better in person. I can’t really tell if she fell behind or not, but that extra class time can help bridge any gaps she might have.”
Millions of children this summer will participate in what’s expected to be the largest summer school program in history, powered by more than $1.2 billion in targeted federal post-pandemic assistance from the American Rescue Plan.
But experts warn these much-needed summer enrichment programs aren’t a panacea — and worry the students most in need of extra tutoring won’t get it. While summer school can be an effective way to help students who are falling behind, studies have also shown students most needing help, typically Black or Latino kids from low-income families who were already being left behind academically before the pandemic, often because of socio-economic factors and systemic racism, are least likely to actually participate. And those who sign up often don’t attend consistently.
Students and educators describe the most difficult part of the past school year
Students and educators describe the most difficult part of the past school year
Harrison Hill, USA TODAY
After a school year in which many of the nation’s approximately 56 million K-12 students struggled through some form of remote learning, lost classroom days and social isolation, summer 2021 programs face the daunting task of teaching not just about math, history and English, but also addressing widespread mental health challenges among students, and in some cases, dealing with nutrition issues for children who missed out on weeks or months of school meals.
And then there’s the added obstacle of skeptical parents, especially from marginalized communities hit hard by COVID-19, who are reluctant to send their kids to in-person learning while the pandemic continues. Black, Indigenous, Pacific Islander and Latino families were among those who suffered the highest levels of death and serious coronavirus cases, especially early on.
“We know the best place for students to learn is in the school classroom. And we also know the past many months have been full of trauma and heartbreak and stress, so we know one of the best places for kids to heal is schools, surrounded by support and their friends and the sense of community that only a school can provide,” said Austin Beutner, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
For the first time in its history, LAUSD, the nation’s second-largest public school system, is offering free summer school to all of its approximately 665,000 students. While the district has an annual budget of about $8 billion, it’s never before had the resources to offer in-person summer programs to anyone who wanted it, Beutner said. Last year, the district offered online-only summer school and drew about 20% of its students.
Beutner said he hopes to do even better with in-person summer school this year, laying the groundwork for more consistent summer-school attendance in years to come after what he sees as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand learning. The district teaches 74% Latino students and 7.7% Black students, with nearly 14% of students overall learning English as a second language.
The challenges faced in L.A. — one of the nation’s most diverse districts — will be repeated nationally. Administrators are scrambling to hire teachers, many of whom are already exhausted and struggling with their own coronavirus-related trauma. Students have spent more than a year being told to stay away from each other. Many have struggled to learn via computer or tablet, if they had internet access at all. Some have stopped attending classes entirely.
During the pandemic, LAUSD sent reading specialists into virtual classrooms after identifying students who needed extra help. Beutner said the district knows how each student is doing because schools consistently tested while students were learning virtually. He said that means every student who walks in for summer school will receive a customized learning program based on those assessments. The challenge, Beutner said, is persuading skeptical parents that it’s safe to send their kids back to classrooms.
As in other districts nationally, LAUSD has found that kids from wealthier areas, which tend to be white, were twice as likely to have returned to classrooms as their lower-income classmates, exacerbating existing inequities over access to computers, high-speed internet and even a quiet place to sit. About half of all Black and Latino fourth-graders were remote learning across the nation in March, compared to 19% for white kids, according to federal data.
“We know which students would benefit the most, but that doesn’t mean their family will decide to participate,” Beutner said. “We’re saying to parents, with the spinach comes a little ice cream, a little bit of French fries. It’s an enrichment camp: We’ll make sure you get the basics, but we’ll also make sure students have a heck of a lot of fun.”
In Florida, the sprawling Miami-Dade County School District’s summer schools hope to serve about 65,000 of the district’s 334,000 students who were identified as needing the most extra help, said Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. He said the district’s $50 million effort is particularly seeking to reach students with disabilities, English learners and students in poverty.
The district traditionally has offered summer school to fewer than 10,000 students, and only 6,000-7,000 actually participate, many of them older students needing credits to graduate. When this year’s school year ended, about half of Miami-Dade’s 350,000-plus students were still learning remotely, and Carvalho acknowledged there’s been a “significant” slowdown in learning for many kids.
“We hope that with this expanded summer program, we’ll essentially turn our school year into a year-round schooling opportunity for many students. Combined with the federal investments we’ll continue to receive for the next two years, we can ensure that every student reaches their full potential. But that won’t be an easy feat considering the circumstances they’ve been under for quite a while,” Carvalho said. “This is a huge scaling up of the summer experience, and it’s targeted toward the students who need it most.”
Klimekoski, whose daughter will be among the Miami-Dade students at summer school, said she’s confident Caia will benefit not just from the 26 days of classes but the social interaction. Klimekoski, a beautician and salon manager, attended summer school when she was her daughter’s age, and fondly remembers her own experiences. She said her friends seem more interested in vacationing this summer, but she wants to make sure her kids get the best chance possible. Caia, however, would prefer to be camping, Klimekoski said.
“Growing up, my summers were in a classroom, so that’s my normal,” Klimekoski said. “Having that extra time in the classroom is extremely beneficial to keep the mind sharp and reinforce what was learned during the school year.”
Because summer school has typically been largely voluntary and run at the local level, no one keeps accurate overall statistics of just how many students attend summer school in a given year. Experts say urban school districts with robust summer school programs serve, at best, about 20% of students. This year, federal officials are insisting programs keep a close count of exactly who shows up, as part of the accountability tied to the recovery act funding.
Experts are already tempering expectations about how much immediate impact summer school may have on things like test scores. They say it’s misguided to believe millions of school kids will be able to recover, let alone “catch up,” with a few extra weeks of instruction. What kids need right now, they said, is a safe environment to ease back into things, and not to be treated as a lost generation whose education and productivity will be forever marred.
Among the concerns is that students who previously had trouble focusing on classroom work will have lost some of their coping skills. But experts also said this is a rare opportunity to focus on mental health and the underlying causes of disproportionate discipline, by training teachers to even more closely focus on the whole child.
“All of us, even adults, have fallen out of practice in being in the world with each other,” said Matthew Soldner, chief evaluation officer for the federal Department of Education. “I think this would be wrong to think of this as a one-and-done sort of thing.”
“We need summer school to be really something different than it has been before. It can’t just be about remediation. It has to be about helping kids get their mojo back,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers union. “We have to think about the entire next year for academic recovery, and we have to think about summer school as a shot in the arm.”
Summer schools typically fall into two categories: enrichment programs that better position kids to learn when they return for the normal school year, and targeted programs for older kids in danger of being held back a year or not graduating. This year school officials are most worried about the kids they’ve lost track of during the months of remote learning.
Weingarten said the fact that summer school will be so widely available this year shows the opportunity the United States has for enhanced year-round learning.
“Summer school this year is about disrupting inequity. It’s being given to more kids in more places,” Weingarten said. “This is not about cramming, not about all of a sudden taking 10 months of algebra and putting it into six weeks and collapsing it all together and saying that’s school. This year it’s about really trying to help kids recover academically, emotionally and socially. And what we’ve learned is that if you help them recover emotionally and socially, it will help them recover academically.”
Pre-pandemic, 47% of families reported that at least one child participated in a summer program, although that includes church and Boy Scout camps outside the public school system, according to a report by the RAND Corporation, a national think-tank. A recent RAND study concluded that kids who attend summer school at least two years consecutively outperformed their peers in math, English language arts and social-emotional learning.
Catherine Augustine, a RAND researcher based in Pittsburgh, said summer school can reduce existing disparities in public education, as long as the kids who most need it actually participate. Studies have shown kids from wealthier families are less likely to benefit from summer school because they already spend more time with adults, eat better and get more chances to participate in family trips to non-school learning opportunities such as aquariums, planetariums and zoos.
“It really falls on the shoulders of the districts to target the programs to the students who need it the most,” Augustine said. “Districts are going to have to be more strategic than they have in the past, and more creative. For a district that hasn’t done this before, or that hasn’t done this well, they aren’t going to be able to start this immediately. But they should start.”
She added: “I don’t think you can fix this with an algebra textbook in a month. But kids weren’t where we wanted them to be on standardized tests before all of this happened.”
In Los Angeles, the district is still scrambling to hire teachers for the summer, develop lesson plans and reach out to parents of children who would benefit the most. They’re dangling free guitars and classes from Hollywood movie producers to entice kids, and reassuring parents that new ventilation systems and cleaning protocols will keep their kids safe.
Because this is the first year the district has ever offered in-person summer school to every student, Beutner said there’s a real opportunity to help address longstanding educational inequities.
“Summer school won’t be the magic elixir for every student,” said Beutner. “But it would be a big deal if we help one child.”
Contributing: Erin Richards, USA TODAY