Look to experienced summer learning programs when it comes to COVID recovery

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Summer learning has never mattered more than it does right now. During a challenging year of remote learning, students faced increased mental health stress, higher rates of absenteeism, and disengagement in school. Teachers also experienced fatigue as they navigated the remote, hybrid, and in-person learning environments that were in a constant state of flux. Innovative and impactful summer learning programs will reverse the fatigue, energizing both students and teachers. Yet, with summer fast-approaching, plans for schools to support students through summer learning remain in limbo. Let’s remedy this situation.

Funding for summer is available at unprecedented levels through the American Rescue Plan. Signaling the importance of summer learning, the Department of Education also recently announced its National Summer Learning & Enrichment Collaborative. All of this has left districts and schools scrambling to put something in place for the summer of 2020. Yet, a recent analysis of 100 large and urban school districts found that more than half have not yet shared any information about their summer plans.

This is our moment.

After a year where so many students had their learning disrupted, we can’t afford to miss the opportunity to support student recovery this summer - and for many years to come. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said schools need to think outside the box and employ a “sense of urgency” when considering summer programming. He also said that schools can’t do it alone. With so much at stake and so much funding on the line, we must acknowledge that one summer is not going to be enough. We urge schools, districts, and states to work together with community-based organizations to respond to the urgency of this year, and to use this infusion of funds to create plans to support quality, evidenced-based learning recovery strategies over the long term.

While it may be challenging for most districts to accomplish summer programming in 2021, especially with so little time to plan, those looking to make effective investments don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Community organizations like Horizons National, Breakthrough Collaborative, Aim High, and solutions providers like BellXcel have been operating and supporting highly successful summer programs for decades and are designed to address the challenges exacerbated by COVID-19 for both students and teachers. We know what works to support student mental well-being, social-emotional health, and academic growth, and there is a lot of evidence to back us up.

Research from RAND Corporation confirms effective summer programs; are free and voluntary; are at least five to six weeks long; include at least three hours of high-quality instruction five days per week; and offer transportation and meals for students. Importantly, this formula is much more effective when students attend for multiple, consecutive summers. When programs focus on ensuring strong attendance within and across summers, provide high-quality instruction, and use instruction time productively, students make academic gains in reading and math, achieve higher graduation rates, and improve social-emotional skills.

Community and belonging are top priorities.

As we support recovery for youth, particularly those experiencing the most vulnerability as a result of COVID, here is what else we know: Community and belonging matter deeply in this moment. Students need safe spaces to process the challenges and trauma of the past year including the ongoing racial and social reckoning. More than ever, summer programs need to be student-centered and characterized by nurturing, welcoming environments with culturally responsive programming. This whole learner model encourages students to deeply explore topics that are most interesting to them in new, engaging, and inclusive learning environments. In addition to quality instruction, students might visit cultural institutions, plant a vegetable garden, or learn to swim, opening students up to new interests and opportunities they might not discover through traditional academic instruction. When programs are designed this way, it results in academic growth, improved mental well-being, and strengthened social skills.

Supporting teachers is essential.

Summer programs that provide professional learning opportunities and flexibility for teachers to take ownership of classroom, curriculum, and activities are also a key part of summer program success and can play a role in helping educators overcome COVID-fatigue. According to Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, teachers are more than ready to engage with summer learning, particularly when they can play a formative role in the process.

“When I engage my members in conversations about what this could be, a light came on in their eyes, and they were so full of ideas,” Pringle said. “When you give educators that space to create for their kids and they believe they have the power and authority to make it what it needs to be for them, it is quite amazing. I fully expect many educators will step up to that call.”

Our organizations have seen teachers choose to get involved with summer programs as a way to practice new instructional strategies, test new learning environments, or experiment with different staffing models before rolling them out more widely. Additionally, many programs provide valuable training for aspiring teachers. While they vary in approach, high-quality summer programs provide excellent training and support for their staff and volunteers.

 We are ready for this.

Summer programs run by community-based organizations like ours are ready and eager to partner with districts, teachers, and students today and, more importantly, over the long term. While we are faced with an unprecedented challenge, we also have an unprecedented opportunity to recognize the immense value of summer learning programs and to invest in building out a system that can support young people in the long term. This is our chance to rise to the occasion. Education renewal is going to take several years, and schools will need all the support we can give them. Working together, districts, educators, and afterschool and summer learning providers can create positive, supportive, and enriching educational experiences that will both make up lost classroom time, and create opportunities for students to thrive.

  Aaron Philip Dworkin, Chief Executive Officer, National Summer Learning Association

  Lorna Smith, Chief Executive Officer, Horizons National

  Alec Lee, Executive Director, Aim High

  Elissa Vanaver, Chief Executive Officer, Breakthrough Collaborative

  Lauren Sanchez Gilbert, Ed.D., Chief Executive Officer, BellXcel