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Districts' Summer School Plans on Shaky Ground
Teacher Danielle Elliot wears a face mask while working with students in an arts and crafts class at Chase Avenue School in El Cajon, Calif. Ariana Drehsler for Education Week

In a year when the coronavirus robbed students of learning time, educators and policymakers are particularly worried that they've lost academic ground. But as this school year winds down, only one-quarter of the nation's school district leaders say they have fully developed plans to offer summer school.

In a nationally representative survey of district leaders, conducted May 20-28 by the EdWeek Research Center, 24 percent said they've finalized plans for summer learning. Thirty-eight percent described their plans as "in progress," and 11 percent said they hadn't begun planning for summer learning. Twenty-seven percent said that either they never offer summer school or had decided not to offer it this year.

"It's really disappointing to know that so few folks are able to execute programs right now," said Aaron Dworkin, the CEO of the National Summer Learning Association. He's also concerned, he said, that more than a quarter of district leaders decided not to offer summer school, or never do.

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"There's a great need for summer learning this year, but districts have been running behind the eight ball since March, and now it's like the exhausted runner: They have to run the next leg and they can't catch their breath," said Nat Malkus, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who's following districts' responses to COVID-19.

Districts are faced with the challenge of building a high-quality summer program at the same time as they're trying to navigate the enormous uncertainties surrounding reopening schools in the fall, including possible budget cuts and layoffs, Malkus said.

Clearly, districts are concerned about the learning their students have lost this past spring, as tens of thousands of students wrestled with balky internet-or no internet-to connect with their classes, or just didn't show up at all. In a recent survey by the EdWeek Research Center, administrators said the help they need most from curriculum providers is support for learning loss.

But planning for summer school is particularly challenging this year. Experts and district leaders told Education Week that a constantly shifting picture of budget cuts, virus spread, and program logistics make it tough to develop a steady plan for summer learning. So it isn't surprising, they said, that nearly 4 in 10 district leaders reported that, at the end of May, they're still in the planning phase for summer school.

Some experts held out hope that many of those districts would complete their plans and offer summer learning for their students. But to some, "still planning" meant only one thing.

"If you don't have a fully formed plan by the end of May, it ain't gonna happen," said Mary Hahn, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in the Goleta Union School District, a Southern California district that decided against summer school this year.

'A Missed Opportunity'

An analysis of districts' summer offerings, released June 3 by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, found that even when districts are offering summer school, it's a slimmed-down version.

CPRE found that for elementary schools, districts are typically offering programs that last 30 to 90 minutes a day. "Summer remains a missed opportunity," Bree Dusseault and two colleagues wrote in a post about their analysis.

The decision about whether to hold summer school is typically made at the district level, although states have been issuing guidance, and, in some cases, setting parameters.

Nebraska, for instance, decided that all summer school classes should be conducted remotely, while Hawaii permitted districts to hold in-person sessions if they wish. Texas told districts they could offer, but couldn't require, summer school.

Dworkin advised districts that are planning summer school to base their programming on what research says works best: A combination of academics and enrichment leads to higher academic performance, he said, and making programs voluntary avoids stigmatizing or punishing students who are mandated to attend. Summer is a particularly good time to focus on groups of students with particular needs, Dworkin said.

Most of the district leaders who responded to the EdWeek Resesarch Center survey plan to target students who are struggling academically. Fifty-one percent said their programs would be required, but only for students who are behind academically. Forty-eight percent said their summer learning programs are required of students who are behind, but offered to all students.

Miami-Dade has drawn notice for its detailed, phased approach to summer school, targeting what Superintendent Alberto Carvalho calls "academically fragile" students: those with multi-year performance deficits. In phase one of its plan, June 8 to July 10, Miami will conduct virtual sessions for students with disabilities and students who often failed to log in to instruction during the spring. Then it will hold sessions focusing on 9th grade algebra and 10th grade English/language arts, since those students will take rescheduled state exams in the fall and must pass in order to graduate. Finally, in late July, Miami plans to conduct intensive instruction in core subjects for low-performing students, and those with disabilities or learning English, before school reopens in the fall.

In a small school district in Missouri, leaders opted against an approach that focused on particular groups of students. The Dunklin R-5 district, in Herculaneum, Mo., will offer full-day summer school for all its K-5 students from July 13 to Aug. 7, with academics in the morning and enrichment in the afternoon, said deputy superintendent Clint Freeman.

Teachers and administrators are using the month of June to plan for those optional programs, and which courses they'll offer online for middle and high school students.

The current plan is to bring the K-5 students into their school buildings for summer school with social-distancing protocols, he said, unless local patterns of COVID-19 contagion change and make face-to-face instruction impossible.

"There is a huge need for our students to get back [to school]," he said. "Our families have been under a lot of strain, trying to navigate schooling from home, and work. We'd like to provide all-day services for our kids."

Balancing Need and Timing

In other districts, leaders weighed the need for academic catch-up against many other factors.

Telena Wright, the superintendent of Texas' Argyle Independent School District, 30 miles northeast of Forth Worth, said that her district would normally hold summer school for 5th and 8th graders whose state test scores showed they needed support. But this year, she and her staff agreed that it's best to focus their resources on the fall.

"We surveyed parents, and there just weren't enough who wanted to participate," she said. "We felt that it's best to have a short break, and then meet students where they are in August."

Kahn, the assistant superintendent in Goleta, Calif., said her district decided to reallocate the $175,000 projected cost of summer school to additional intervention to support students in the fall. That plan would let the district hire two additional intervention teachers and-if local health data support it-conduct in-person interventions with students one-on-one or in small groups, Kahn said.

During virtual learning, intervention teachers were reporting a lot of difficulty keeping their students on task and getting completed work from them, Kahn said. They feared that more online instruction in the summer would feel just as ineffective.

Concerned their students will have a rough time when school starts in the fall, some teachers are creating their own personal summer support sessions. Kelly Carver, who teaches 2nd grade in Ralston, Neb., said she plans to work individually with one student who's learning English.

She can't do that with all of her students, but most don't need it, since they have parents or siblings who will help them learn over the summer. But this one little boy, who's been gaining ground with his English, worries her.

"I don't want him to lose what he's gained," Carver said.

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