What the Pandemic Means for Summer Learning—And How Policymakers Can Help

RAND’s Catherine Augustine discusses a new report on the summer learning policy landscape and what lies ahead for summer programs

This article first appeared on The Wallace Foundation’s blog. It has been republished with permission.

This is a challenging and uncertain time for everyone. Schools are beginning to adapt to the realities of the current crisis brought on by the global coronavirus pandemic, but what about summer learning programs? Summer programs have always played an important role in supporting students who fall behind academically, but with so many young people across the country losing vital learning time, they may be important than ever. Yet organizers of summer programs face a host of unknowns, including whether they will be able to serve students at all in the coming months and, if so, how.

One thing that doesn’t have to be an unknown is the way government policies—federal, state, city, and school district—both help and limit summer learning efforts. Getting Support for Summer Learning, a new report from the RAND Corporation, offers information and advice to aid summer learning leaders in securing and maintaining support for their programs. We talked to Catherine Augustine, one of the report’s authors, about applying the lessons of the report in this unprecedented moment.

What is the outlook for summer learning during this very difficult period?

For this coming summer, some programs are canceling altogether, some are pivoting to be 100 percent virtual and others are hoping to continue in person. It’s likely that most will cancel. For those shifting to online experiences, it’s important to capture how that goes. Are they reaching kids? Are kids attending regularly? Are they benefiting and in what ways? Documenting what goes well in the summer would be useful to schools because they’re likely to continue at least some virtual offerings in the fall. Schools are already learning a lot about virtual learning, of course, but school leaders might gain insights from summer programs about offering virtual enrichment classes like art, music and even physical education.

Hopefully, summer programs can be in full swing and “normal” in summer 2021. At that point, they should be a critical tool for helping those students who are falling behind now to catch up. Districts and schools should soon begin aggressively planning to serve more kids than they typically do in summer 2021 and focusing their summer programs on the skills students need to gain to catch up to their counterparts.

We know that students are losing a significant amount of learning time this school year and may lose more in the school year to come. We also know that inequities between poor families and more affluent families are worsening during this period. Given these conditions, should policymakers be thinking differently about summer learning?

Yes. I hope policymakers come to see summer 2021 as incredibly important for catching up those students who are now falling behind and make sure there is adequate funding and support for school districts to expand the number of students served next summer in high-quality programs.

As we approach the time when summer programs would typically open, summer learning leaders are facing great uncertainty. Are there any lessons from the report that are particularly relevant to the current situation?

In the report, we advise summer program organizers to try to ensure that district leaders understand the importance of summer programming, so they can make it a priority in their budget meetings and decisions about how to spend general operating or Title I dollars, or about what outside grants to pursue. This is even more critical now. As districts are scrambling to meet students’ immediate learning and other needs, they’re probably not thinking about summer programming. But if summer programs aren’t planned in advance, it’s unlikely they’ll be high quality. Program leaders should do what they can to ensure they have funding in hand or pledged for summer 2021 by the end of this calendar year so that they can start planning.

What steps can states take policy-wise to help communities use summer effectively as a time for learning? What steps can districts take? Cities?

Some states, like Texas, have recently established new funding streams for extending school time, including in the summer. Other states might want to replicate these laws, given the importance of focusing on children who are now falling behind. States will also have the opportunity to hold back a small portion of the K–12 funding that they will pass on to districts from the federal Education Stabilization Fund (part of the federal CARES Act stimulus package). They could use that funding to incentivize district-led summer programs. Districts can use this stabilization funding for summer programming, too, although it’s likely that at this point their priority is technology, which is critical for their online learning efforts. City budgets are likely to be more strained than is typical in the next year, but cities that offer jobs programs might continue to support those programs and should advocate for that funding if it’s at risk. Summer jobs programs have been demonstrated to have several positive outcomes, including less risky and illegal behavior on the part of participants. At-risk youth will likely need these programs more than ever in 2021 if small businesses in their communities close.

What, if anything, is known about virtual forms of summer learning, which may be the best option for many programs this summer?

Districts have had success delivering credit recovery summer programs to high school students in online form. But those programs are more akin to school with a focus on academic learning, rather than the enrichment activities typically offered in summer programs. If summer programs do attempt to replicate enrichment activities online, they’re likely to do so with small groups of students who take breaks to create on their own or with another student online and then return to the group to share what they have done through a video exchange. Students might, for example, create a video to be shared with the rest of the group. Teachers can ensure that students have time to present their thoughts and have a say in what they learn and experience. To support social and emotional learning, teachers can hold virtual restorative practice circles (i.e., dialogues in which students and teachers respond to challenging behavior and try to “make things right”) by asking students to respond to a prompt. Some teachers who are already leading online classes are using props such as wheels that display various emotions to start conversations about how students are feeling.

All of this is new, so we have few roadmaps to follow. But I have faith in those who teach in summer programs. If anyone can find creative ways to continue to engage children during the summer, they can. And the rest of us should follow along and learn from their trailblazing.

 

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