When I was a teacher and school leader, I looked ahead to summer break with excitement. Time to recharge! And plan for the year ahead, of course. Now, working with parents and caregivers, I know that summer break brings anxiety along with the enthusiasm—because it means two months or more without anywhere for their kids to go. This year, summer holds even more question marks. Should families’ plans include summer school?
In some districts across the country, we’re hearing murmurs of using this summer vacation to help kids catch up on some of what’s been lost during the pandemic. Let’s be clear: “Learning loss” is only one piece of what families are thinking about right now. Families have been in crisis mode for nearly a year. There are serious mental health concerns for children and parents alike. Jobs, homes, and of course loved ones have been lost in huge numbers. For many parents and caregivers, the academic effects of missed in-person school are actually pretty low on the list of day to day worries.
At the same time, most students in public schools have been without normal schooling for a year now, and we’re not done yet—by next fall, it’ll be more like a year and a half. While some students have had access to high-quality remote learning and are doing just fine, many others have not.
As schools and families consider how to help their children bridge the gaps—and do so safely—the question of summer school is coming up more and more. In many parts of the country, Covid-19 numbers are starting to trend downward now. As we know, there’s no guarantee that they’ll stay that way. But the possibility exists that between continued adherence to safety protocols, more teachers and adult family members getting vaccinated, and warmer weather, summer could offer a relatively safe chance to fill in some of what students have lost since last March. What are districts weighing up when it comes to the possibility of offering summer programming? And what should parents consider as they attempt to plan for summer?
Will summer school be mandatory? That’s pretty unlikely—for either teachers or students. Teachers are exhausted. Families are exhausted. Everyone is going to need a break. And for the most part, districts can’t compel teachers to give up their summer vacations, since those breaks are built into existing contracts. But in many places, districts and unions are starting to consider what summer programming could look like for families that want it, perhaps using federal funding to pay teachers who choose to work, and by supplementing with educators from community programs.
What would summer school look like? Realistically, summer school probably wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) look like regular school. Our wish list for summer programming would include content-rich activities on exciting topics that can both supplement students’ learning and offer something fresh and engaging. (Kinda like Camp Kinda, but...you know, in real life.) We’d also love to see schools use some extra time to get students familiar with in-person school routines again. This will be especially important for kids who did the big transitional grades remotely, like rising first graders or rising 10th graders. And for students who really need additional support in key learning areas—especially literacy or math—to get them ready for next school year, high-quality and affordable one-on-one tutoring is going to be more valuable than ever.
Will this be enough to catch kids up? Definitely not. I think we can all agree that there isn’t going to be a quick fix here. Schools, families, and community organizations are going to have to partner creatively—probably for years to come—to dig out of the hole Covid has created for everyone.
Do kids need to catch up, though? Can’t we just give everyone a break? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer here. Some families will undoubtedly feel that it’s more important to focus on other things this summer, like reconnecting with extended family if it’s safe to do so, or healing—physically, mentally, and emotionally—from this year. That’s a completely valid choice. Other families may be worried about their children losing ground in reading or with language skills, or will want them to have opportunities to learn in person again with friends and teachers. The definition of “catching up” is going to mean different things for different families, and that’s fine.
What about families that still don’t feel ready to return to in-person activities? Once again, this is going to be a decision for each family to make based on comfort level and risk. It’s hard to imagine that families will be forced to send their kids anywhere this summer, let alone into school buildings—even in districts that end up offering summer programming. But as we’ve discussed elsewhere in The Kinda Guide, if your student is being asked to return to school in person, and you don’t feel ready, there are a few things we recommend doing to help prepare. And while we’re trying to predict what summer will look like for our own families, too, we’ll be here with Camp Kinda for those who want it.
“The definition of “catching up” is going to mean different things for different families, and that’s fine.”
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How to Handle the Looming School Transition
In the fall, schools will be full of first graders who did kindergarten from home, and high school sophomores who have never set foot in their buildings. How can families prepare for this unexpected transitional year?