The Role of Summer School in Preparing for In-Person Instruction

When schools closed at the start of the pandemic, educators and parents alike worried about kids falling behind. Teachers already have to push so much into the curriculum that they couldn’t afford to miss an extra week or two of school. Then a few weeks of remote learning became a whole year. As schools plan their return to classroom instruction in the fall, district leaders are just now understanding how far behind students are and where they stand emotionally.   

Ahead of the fall 2021 school year, some administrators and parents are discussing summer school options. Short summer sessions have taken on a new importance in helping students retain information and reconnect with learning and their friends. 

Here’s how summer school will look different this year, and why that might be a good thing. 

Administrators, Parents and Politicians Call for Summer School

When you ask education leaders and parents about the past year, all agree that students didn’t learn or retain as much as they would have with in-person learning. This is not the fault of the students or the teachers, who did the best with what they had. 

“Even if you have the fastest computer, the best internet, whatever else, it’s really difficult for these children to learn and not be in class,” says Tim Moore, North Carolina House of Representatives speaker. “We know these kids are falling behind. We know this is something that, if we don’t do it right, North Carolina will pay for it for decades.”

The challenge is with the length of time students were forced to learn remotely. Students who missed (or ignored) multiplication and division lessons in fifth grade could potentially struggle with math for the next several years.

“Before the pandemic, I used to worry how a single snow day would impact students’ ability to meet educational imperatives, like learning to read by third grade or solve algebraic equations by eighth,” writes Jim Manly, superintendent of KIPP NYC, a network of 15 public charter schools. “Helping students stay on track after being separated from the classroom for a year, in comparison, seems nearly impossible.”

This is why more people from all parts of the education system are urging parents to sign their children up for summer school. Many parents agree and are in turn asking for better summer school programs for their kids. 

“Lengthy summer vacations have long been questionable, given research suggesting that many students ‘lose’ some of what they learned the previous school year,” writes Catherine Rampell, opinion columnist at The Washington Post. “But this year, the traditional summer break is even less defensible, particularly for lower- and moderate-income kids who’ve already suffered huge pandemic-related learning losses.”

If everyone is on the same page with summer school enrollment, then there shouldn’t be a problem, right? Not necessarily. There are still challenges regarding how we teach summer students and where the resources to do so come from.

children in group learning setting; summer school concept

Districts Need Summer School Plans

Even before the winter holidays ended, parents were wondering about the upcoming summer and any additional programming their districts might have. For example, Education Trust-Midwest in Michigan conducted a poll of 400 parents in late 2020. Their survey found 85 percent of parents want plans to address learning loss caused by COVID-19 and 83 percent support voluntary, in-person summer schools to help kids who have fallen behind. 

That said, Michigan (like many states across the country) needs to put forth a plan to help students catch up. “What are we going to do with this time over the summer?” asks Amber Arellano, executive director of Education Trust-Midwest. “What does our strategy look like as a state for the coming school year?”

Many districts don’t yet have plans for summer learning, or at least they don’t feel comfortable sharing them. This is concerning for parents, especially as the spring semester enters its final weeks. 

The Center on Reinventing Public Education reviewed the summer school plans for 2021 for 100 urban and large school districts, writes Dr. Christine M. T. Pitts, research and evaluation manager at Portland Public Schools. The CRPE wanted to learn whether schools are offering in-person or online summer classes (or both), and what types of programs districts plan to offer. Only 35 percent shared detailed plans. More than one-half (53 percent) didn’t share any information on summer plans and 12 percent shared a broad vision but lacked “specificity and transparency in what summer learning and enrichment options will look like,” Pitts writes.

two young boys read on floor; summer school concept

Rethinking Summer School in the Post-Pandemic Era

Along with finding resources for summer school, some districts want to completely rethink how they engage with students. Summer school is only effective if students are willing to attend, engage and learn. Otherwise, these programs can further isolate them in the classroom. 

“I don’t think summer education as a quality educational experience has a great track record,” says historian Kenneth Gold, author of “School’s In: The History of Summer Education in American Public Schools.” He explains that students who don’t understand lessons during the school year likely won’t understand those same lessons over the summer. Summer school often presents the same material in the same way, instead of considering why students didn’t learn the concepts the first time around. 

This is what some administrators are hoping to change. They want to use summer to build an interest in learning that even the most disengaged students can’t turn down. 

“Summer schools should be welcoming, relaxed environments where lessons are supplemented by enriching activities – like drama or outdoor exercise,” says Nayeer Afzal, program director at Learning Hive in the UK.

Some districts already have plans in place to create an engaging summer school experience, tapping into the desire for students to see their friends in person. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, the district is spending between $10-$15 million on multiple full-day summer camps for students to catch up. This is a much larger investment than the $2-$3 million the district usually allocates to summer school. 

“The goal is lots of opportunities for students to accelerate their learning, to catch up on foundational literacy and numeracy skills, and to reconnect with their friends,” says Paula Shannon, deputy superintendent at Tulsa Public Schools. 

Districts also need to rethink how they bring students to the summer classroom. Summer school  needs to be presented as a fun experience for students and a valuable use of time for parents — who often have to build their lives around the school day. 

“How you communicate to students and families will make a big difference,” says Elaine Allensworth, Lewis Sebring Director of the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. “Students must feel they are part of something special rather than being punished for falling behind.” 

For example, of the 58,600 students referred to the remote summer programs in 2020, only about one-third actually enrolled and just 14,200 students actually completed them. When it comes to remote summer school for English language learners, the results are even worse with just 10 percent of students finishing the program.

children play on playground; summer school concept

Providing Social-Emotional Support for Students

Summer school in 2021 is more than learning or fun and games. The in-person experience of summer school this year is meant to help students reconnect with each other and rebuild some of the social connections they’ve lost over the past year. In-person school also gives administrators a chance to identify any emotional or counseling needs of students. 

“Not every student’s individual need is going to be catching up academically,” says Melissa Musselwhite, student services director for Pasco County schools in Florida. “Some might need well-being support…before the return in the fall so they can be ready to learn. Kids burn out in the same way that adults burn out.” 

This is why many districts are approaching summer learning with care. They want to use this time to help some of the most vulnerable students who are still reeling from the past year. 

“What’s unique to this moment to some degree is the need for a comprehensive whole-child approach,” says Aaron Philip Dworkin, CEO at National Summer Learning Association. “You can’t say to kids, ‘Welcome back, we’re glad to see you. We’ll ignore the trauma you have had. Now let’s do reading and math.’”

Administrators Need to Entice Teachers

While teachers are in agreement that in-person summer school provides value and students need social-emotional support after the pandemic, many still need to use this summer as a period to rest and prepare for the school year ahead.

“I’ve literally been working nonstop since 2019, and I just have nothing left to give,” says Frank Marino in Chalkbeat. “Personally, I just need a break.”

The city plans to welcome 190,000 students to its in-person summer school programs, a marked increase from the 115,000 students who usually attend, reports Alex Zimmerman in the same Chalkbeat article. To accommodate them, the district will have to open about 700 buildings, twice the usual number. Teachers are desperately needed to accommodate these students and fill these buildings.  

“There have been a record number of teacher retirements because of burnout,” says Jennifer Peck, executive director at Partnership for Children and Youth in California. “Those remaining are exhausted and want to take a break and get ready for next year.”

District leaders across the country are creating plans to hire educators for the summer. Tony Wold, associate superintendent of business services at West Contra Costa Unified School District in California, says his district asks teachers to volunteer to work over the summer. If they can’t get enough educators from inside the district, they open up hiring to outside the district. 

The administrators also survey parents to gauge interest in summer school to understand how many teachers they need. With summer class sizes capped at 14 students (and preferably around 10 students) the demand for teachers will likely be higher this year.  

“Summer school is going to be essential to closing the gaps that we’re seeing with our kids,” says Jennifer Blaine, superintendent of schools for the Spring Branch school district in Houston. “In order to bridge those gaps, we need our very best teachers in the classroom. But our teachers are tired, and the work’s going to be tough.” 

To entice educators, the Spring Branch district approved a pay raise from $25 per hour to $30 per hour for educators who teach over the summer, with lead teachers seeing an increase to $35. Since announcing the pay raise, the district has been able to recruit 50 more teachers to work over the summer.

Over the past year, most teachers, parents, and students were focused on surviving. While many people are looking ahead to Fall 2021 with optimism, there will be an adjustment period on everyone’s part. Some students need to catch up academically while others need to recover socially and emotionally. Summer school can serve as that bridge from pandemic learning to return to normal. However, districts need clear plans to engage students and provide value to both kids and educators. 

Images by: CDC, CDC, Victoria_Borodinova, mkzsfoto