Q&A: How Administrators Are Preparing for Summer School Amid the Pandemic

Across the country, school districts are grappling with the disruption of learning that occurred over the past year. The question is how to catch kids up after an uneven experience with remote learning. Should districts make summer school mandatory for all? Extend the school day or year for the foreseeable future? And if schools can bring students back into the classroom by summer, who will teach them? Educators are exhausted, and most aren't contractually obligated to work over the summer.

One possible bright spot is the COVID-19 aid package now before Congress. It contains $130 billion in additional funds to reopen the nation’s schools safely and requires districts to use 20% of the aid to address learning loss by offering summer school, extended school days, or other intervention programs. The money can be used to pay teachers, substitutes, and tutors.

Shaped spoke with Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), about how school leaders can best address pandemic learning loss, what resources they will need, and the bold choices they will have to make going forward.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Shaped: Do you think summer school will be virtual, in person, or a mix of both?

Dan Domenech: In all probability, it'll be a combination of in person and remote, depending on the COVID-19 infection rate in the community. We’ve given up on saying, “Well, by summer, everything should be okay.” Here it is a year later, and things are still not okay.

Shaped: Should summer school be offered to all students or only those who need intervention?

Dan: Learning loss is a big concern for more students now, so there's potential for districts to offer summer school to all with the hope of helping them catch up. There is money in the COVID Relief package that Congress is considering now to fund summer school and other programs to address learning loss. So districts would have dollars available to pay teachers.

But this brings up the question: Can summer school be mandatory for all? The school year is the time when all students are mandated to be in school. Summer school has never been a part of that. So, can states make it a mandatory situation or will it continue to be voluntary? That's another issue that has to be dealt with.

Shaped: If districts aren't able to require summer school for all, which students should get priority?

Dan: The priority should be for the kids who need summer school the most—the ones who have been absent and not getting any form of instruction. One thing that may bring about a significant change in education is to go to year-round schooling. Summer would no longer be a vacation period, but instead, a part of the regular school year. You may see more and more districts beginning to move in that direction. I think this move provides the most benefit from the additional instruction time. Year-round school can accelerate the students who are at the top of their classes, and it can certainly help struggling students catch up.

"The priority should be for the kids who need summer school the most—the ones who have been absent and not getting any form of instruction."

Dan Domenech Executive Director, The School Superintendents Association

Shaped: Is the year-round schooling idea an effect of the pandemic or were we always going in that direction?

Dan: A lot of districts are already moving in that direction. We always talk about the loss of learning that happens over summer vacation. Teachers would spend the majority of September catching up the students to where they were when they left school in June. Year-round school minimizes that summer learning loss.

There are a lot of districts that want to move in this direction, but there's the issue of teacher contracts, not to mention pushback from families and kids. Still, there are districts that have implemented year-round programs. When I was a superintendent in Fairfax County (Virginia), we basically had four semesters of 10 weeks a piece. That's how the time was chunked out—a couple of weeks off in between semesters. It's a very effective way of doing it.

Shaped: You mentioned that many students have been absent from remote learning. Do you have any advice for administrators on how to track down absent kids and get them into summer school?

Dan: That’s definitely a huge concern right now. There's a significant decline in enrollment. How do you get to them? Districts are going to have to make home visits.

The welfare of students is important, but it's also important to the district because aid is based on enrollment. If a district has 10% fewer students, that's a 10% cut in their budget for both state and federal funding. Hopefully the package that's before Congress right now will help to provide districts with the dollars they'll need to reach out to these students, find them, and bring them back into the flow.

Shaped: What role will social-emotional learning play in summer school this year?

Dan: There's greater concern over the social-emotional effect of the pandemic on children than there is over learning loss. Kids will catch up. They have a whole lifetime to catch up. It's not like they can never recover. The social-emotional issues, though, are different. We've seen a significant increase in suicide rates. We've seen a significant increase in drug usage. We've seen a significant increase in students who have emotional issues as a result of this.

So the higher priority should be addressing students' wellbeing before getting into the academics. Many districts are working to provide training so that teachers first start off with, “How's it going for you? What's happening? How can we support you?”

Shaped: What do we know about the effect of COVID learning loss on students?

Dan: We’ve already seen that learning loss in reading and in math has been significant. Consider the millions of students who don’t have the technology or internet access at home to participate in remote learning. This group likely has the largest loss of learning. And students of color have been greatly impacted, either because they were not receiving any kind of remote instruction, or if they were, the quality of the instruction wasn't effective. Many of our students who are low-performing academically are the ones who are less likely to do well with remote learning. For them, remote learning is a bigger obstacle in terms of their ability to progress at the pace that we would hope for.

Shaped: Should administrators be on the lookout for particular teaching resources and assessments to address learning loss?

Dan: Here's the critical point that may, I hope, have an impact on education going forward. There’s a lot of talk about accountability and testing, but the reality is that statewide standardized tests do nothing to inform instruction. Teachers are going to have to give diagnostic tests that will show what every child has mastered and where that child needs to be caught up. That's a whole different form of testing. That's not testing for accountability; that's testing to inform instruction. That's going to be a critical component of summer programs because every child’s learning loss is going to be different. Every teacher is going to have to know exactly where Johnny is in terms of reading, math, or any other subject.

Shaped: Do schools have these diagnostic assessments on hand or will they have to prepare for this?

Dan: Some districts may already have contracts with assessment providers. But if they don't, that's something that they're going to have to get. And I think that's going to be part of the funding that districts will receive. They’ll be able to use those dollars to get the assessment instruments that are more diagnostic than the standardized tests that are just for accountability.

"The higher priority should be addressing students' wellbeing before getting into the academics."

Dan Domenech Executive Director, The School Superintendents Association

Shaped: Will there be more professional development to help teachers address the particular challenges students face this school year?

Dan: You’re talking now not about students who may have failed Algebra 1 and need to take the course all over again; you’re talking about students who may have a significant deficit in all coursework because they haven't been in school, or the instruction they have been receiving isn't up to par. These challenges are going to require more personalized instruction to address each student's particular needs. There are districts that will be able to do that very well, and there are districts that won’t because they may not have the staff with the training. And they may not have the material that will work best for students.

The better approach to summer school would be to find out where the student is weak, and rather than reteach the entire course, focus on the areas of deficit for the individual student.

Shaped: How do you think the increased need for summer learning this year might change how schools approach staffing?

Dan: Even if school districts have the funds, staffing is going to be a challenge. A number of districts are already having issues where teachers are refusing to come in. That problem could easily continue into the summer months, especially since it's not typical for all teachers to continue working over the summer.

If districts don't have the staff for in-person instruction, they'll fall back on a hybrid model or, as a last recourse, remote learning. But that will be a district-by-district decision. Remote learning may be the easiest way to provide summer school since it doesn't require as much staff. If you're using synchronous and asynchronous instruction combined, it allows for more students to be served at the same time.

For urban areas with the largest concentration of students, it's going to be tougher. Most urban districts are still doing remote learning. They may continue with remote learning through the summer months while districts with fewer students will be able to do in-person learning. These children will basically get an extended school year that, instead of beginning in September, will begin in July.

Shaped: What role do you think technology or artificial intelligence may play in summer school this year and into the future?

Dan: There’s no question that even after the pandemic is under control, remote learning is here to stay. It won't be the only approach, but it will be used to support in-person learning. Throughout the course of the year—never mind just the summer—remote learning will be available for students after school, on weekends, and during vacations.

The asynchronous instruction, where it's not a live teacher but the student working through a pre-packaged lesson, could be delivered by AI software that interacts with students. That software is available already. Obviously, that’s a plus because it minimizes the staffing needed to do the kind of work that we're talking about. But AI is not abundant enough in all areas to make it practical.

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We understand that addressing the interrupted learning of this past school year presents a challenge for educators everywhere. This article is part of a series of resources focused on COVID learning recovery and designed to help you plan now for summer school and next year.

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