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Summer Programs Struggle to Keep Learning Fun From a Distance
Child-care worker Paula Saavedra checks a student's temperature last month at the entrance to the Chase Avenue School in El Cajon, Calif. The Cajon Valley Union School District provides in-person child care for the children of essential workers. Ariana Drehsler for Education Week

For many students, the coronavirus pandemic drained much of the joy from the last months of the 2019-20 academic year.

Summer shouldn't end up the same way, say organizers of programs devoted to offering enrichment during out-of-school time.

In a typical year, local school districts and community partners offer summer enrichment activities that allow children to maintain their academic progress while gaining work experience or diving deep into interest areas they might not typically have a chance to explore in depth. Often, those deep dives involve collaborative, hands-on group work.

This year, however, many organizations devoted to summer learning will have to figure out how to engage students in enrichment programs provided remotely-if they're offering them at all.

And at the same time, summer programs and community groups are facing severe budget cuts, as funders start to reckon with the economic impact of the coronavirus.

But drastically scaling back or cutting summer enrichment is likely to hurt the students whose learning has already been set back the most by the haphazard shift to remote schooling: students from low-income families who rely on free or low-cost enrichment options, said Aaron Dworkin, the chief executive officer of the National Summer Learning Association.

See Also: Districts' Summer School Plans on Shaky Ground

"I would argue that this is a time to be hyper-creative and hyper-collaborative," said Dworkin, whose organization believes that investing in summer learning is key to closing the achievement gap. "One district and one entity cannot do everything by itself. What other resources do we have in our community that we can tap into?"

Keeping 'Woo Hoo' Spirit

Robin Berlinsky, the executive director of the Charleston, S.C.-based Engaging Creative Minds, is among the organizations forging new partnerships in order to keep what she called the "woo hoo spirit" in its summer program.

Normally, the organization would host an in-person "STEAM Institute" that combines the arts with lessons in science, technology, engineering, and math.

This year, the program will be mostly remote. But "summer is still summer," Berlinsky said. "It should be a time for more exploration-having so much fun you don't know you're learning."

The program has brought in new partners; for example, the organization has enlisted the help of a local antique car club to have a parade through town as a way to engage students in history. And for at least the first few weeks, the program is doing away with the need for children to have a computer to participate.

"What we're trying to say is, it's OK, let's get back to the basics," Berlinsky said. "Kids will become motivated simply by being curious about something."

Once a week, they hope to bring children together in person in small groups in an outdoor setting, to report on what they've done over the past few days and to get a renewed infusion of fun and purpose. To accommodate social distancing, Berlinsky said the outdoor gatherings, as well as the summer meal sites, will have appropriately spaced chalk circles that each child can stand in during the check-ins.

The program is building in the ability to respond to changes, depending on directives from health or educational officials.

"We like to say we can turn it on a dime," Berlinsky said. "The way we start, I'm pretty sure, will not be the way we finish."

'Pop-Up Play' and YouTube

Young Audiences of Maryland, a Baltimore-based organization that also focuses on arts-integrated learning, is planning an expansive set of activities to reach children, including art kits that allow children hands-on opportunities, and "Arts and Learning Kids," a television show broadcast available through local public access TV and YouTube.

The organization also plans to host "pop-up play"-in-person, small-group, supervised play sessions-in local green spaces and parks, said Stacie Sanders, the organization's chief executive officer.

Students are spaced out at appropriate social distances as they eat their snacks at the child-care program at Chase Avenue School, a practice that many in-person summer programs will likely incorporate this year.

Ariana Drehsler for Education Week

One open question is if the children will participate in this hybrid model. To encourage connection, Young Audiences is thinking of "creative challenges and healthy competitions" to spur continued involvement, Sanders said.

One thing that is important for the organization and similar groups is "setting realistic expectations about how much we can and should expect kids to engage on their screen in the summer," Sanders said. "We're really trying to be mindful of that, and just putting care for our students and their emotional and mental health as the top priority."

Some school districts are getting creative as well. Cajon Valley Union School District in San Diego County, Calif., opened its doors for a free, in-person child-care program for essential workers in the community. It's not something the 16,000-student district has ever done before, but parents who must work full time outside of the home said they needed that support, said Superintendent David Miyashiro.

Using what it has learned, the K-8 district plans to continue the program into the summer and expand it to more children. The safety of the kids and their emotional connectedness are the main goals; academic work will be "more in the framework of challenges and fun," he said.

Among the protections offered in the district program: Children are asked about their health and have their temperatures taken daily. They sit at desks separated from their peers, and are each given their own materials to work with, including a laptop for enrichment programs. They eat meals outside and play games like "shadow tag" that allow appropriate distancing, Miyashiro said. The staff members are also given daily temperature checks, and wear masks and gloves.

The children who are currently in the program have adapted well to the safety rules so far, Miyashiro said-so much so that he sometimes visits the school hosting the child care program, just to see the children.

"To hear the joy and laughter on our campus is just pure joy," Miyashiro said.

Three students in the district child-care program work on a remote-learning project last month at the Chase Avenue School.

Ariana Drehsler for Education Week

Pittsburgh's Summer Dreamers Academy, now in its 11th year, will still go forward virtually, said Melanie Claxton, the district's coordinator of out-of-school learning. The program, along with those in four other urban school districts, was the focus of a study by the RAND Corporation on the effectiveness of summer learning that combines academic support and student-driven enrichment. The research found that the programs produced math gains for the rising 4th graders who participated, but flat results in reading and social-emotional development.

Summer Dreamers will now have math and reading instruction provided virtually and through instructional packets, with afternoons devoted to topics students want to explore. The system is planning how to distribute the materials students may need; city recreational centers may be one of the pick-up points, Claxton said.

In addition, the district has new programs underway: It is partnering with community organizations on a summer Learn and Earn program that lets older students engage in career exploration and on-the-job training. This year, the projects will be done virtually, but some students will still be able to earn a stipend of around $1,000. Another program will offer enrichment classes and SAT prep to older students.

These programs will hopefully help stem the "COVID slide," said Pittsburgh Superintendent Anthony Hamlet. "We wanted to put programs in place that were academically oriented and also make sure that they're fun and have social-emotional learning embedded in that. We're excited we'll be able to expand," Hamlet said.

But there are many hurdles that summer learning and enrichment programs must overcome-from abiding by changing health guidelines to simply having enough money to operate.

Enduring Budget Cuts

New York City, which was hit hard by the pandemic, is projecting a city budget shortfall of about $9 billion. Last month, the mayor's office proposed an $89 billion budget that included eliminating its summer youth employment program, the nation's largest, typically employing about 75,000 youth. It has also proposed cuts to city-funded programs run through community organizations. Even all city-run outdoor public pools and the city's 14 miles of beaches are likely to remain closed because of the budget crisis.

The community organizations slated to lose money are already providing essential services to children remotely, said Traci Donnelly, the chief executive officer of the Child Center of New York. Among the many services the center offers are after-school and summer youth development programs.

"There are very difficult decisions to be made," Donnelly said. "That being said, I think this is very shortsighted. We can't ignore that there's three months between now and [the start of next school year.] What we do in those months makes a difference to kids' success come September."

Some of the organizations under her group's umbrella are already seeing city contracts that don't include funding for July and August. Donnelly is now advocating that her organization be given the flexibility to spread out 10 months of funding over 12 months, rather than just cutting off services abruptly for two months.

"Trust the community-based organizations to do what we've always done, which is support the ultimate goal: overall access to extra support to make kids successful in school," Donnelly said.

Zoo New England, which oversees zoos in Boston and Stoneham, Mass., is now allowed to open to visitors, as are all zoos in the state. "But we still don't have guidelines on camp yet," said Cynthia Mead, Zoo New England's executive vice president of external affairs and programming. In recent years, Zoo New England has been the site of a "5th Quarter of Learning" program for 4th and 5th graders in the Boston school system. The children blend academics along with learning about animals and the environment.

Program leaders are still working through options with other organizations that work with children. Is there a way to push out Zoo New England resources to groups they haven't worked with before? Can they supplement instructional programs by inviting groups to the zoo for on-site enrichment? Those and other options are all under discussion, she said. "We know how enriching these programs can be for the students," she said. "We are committed to continuing to be open-minded about how we can run these programs."

Districts' Summer School Plans on Shaky Ground
Education Week