Following a challenging pandemic school year, students are heading to summer school, where local school districts have implemented academic programs aimed at combating pandemic-related learning loss and providing enrichment.

Local educators say that students need summer classes to help offset learning losses and higher student failure rates, but noted another benefit: summer school also provides opportunities to address kids’ social and emotional well-being.

This summer, students have been participating in classes to catch up academically and taking part in more engaging classes ranging from drone technology to creative writing and music.

“We felt the summer was really our first opportunity to get to our kids who needed any type of extra help, so we put a lot of thought into our summer programming,” said Joseph Orr, superintendent of Jefferson-Morgan School District in Greene County.

Orr said the district also wants to address the social and emotional needs of children whose school year was interrupted, and to provide them with opportunities to interact with their teachers and peers.

“We all felt the stress of this whole school year, whether it was a parent, teacher or administrator, but kids, too, were dealing with it, thinking and worrying about, ‘Is life ever going to be normal again?’” said Orr.

At Laurel Highlands School District in Fayette County, the summer school program was extended to eight weeks, and “our summer programs absolutely were designed to bridge any gaps and deal with learning loss that was a direct result of the pandemic,” said Dr. Jesse Wallace, superintendent.

“We are trying to keep students who struggled this year on track and on point in all core areas so that they won’t need remediation and can continue to stay on their path toward matriculation,” he said. “We took the bull by the horns to help get them up to speed.”

School districts have plenty of money to spend to address summer school programs. The American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund is providing nearly $122 billion to states and school districts over three years to deal with COVID-related education issues.

“We were able to do a whole lot more because of ESSERS funding,” said Wallace. “Students were the direct beneficiaries.”

States are required to invest at least $1.2 billion on summer programs based on strategies shown to improve student outcomes academically and emotionally.

School districts are required to use at least $21 billion for initiatives to confront the impact of lost instructional time.

“Too many students have experienced interruptions in learning and negative effects on their social and emotional well-being due to time apart from friends and community,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said earlier this year. “Summer presents a key opportunity for school districts and community partners to accelerate learning and provide new avenues for students to safely engage with each other in fun activities. Let’s use this moment to reimagine what fun, engaging summer programs can look like.”

At Jefferson-Morgan, nearly 100 students in grades kindergarten through five participated in a newly created three-week STEM boot camp.

About 20% of the student population participated in summer programming, more than double the percentage of students who have taken summer courses in years past.

The school district also tripled the length of its Extended School Year program, which addresses students with special needs. Participation in the ESY program quadrupled this summer.

“It’s been phenomenal,” said Orr.

School districts in Washington, Greene and Fayette counties have focused on credit recovery programs for students who were in danger of failing one or more courses.

In Trinity Area School District, more than 90 Trinity High School students participated in the credit recovery program, keeping them on course for graduation.

“There was a lack of continuity throughout the school year. We had a lot of kids who failed two or more classes, and our goal was to get them back where they needed to be,” said assistant high school principal Zach Zebrasky.

Combined, the students participated in more than 150 classes ranging from gym to calculus.

Zebrasky said this year, summer school is free. In past years, families had to pay for summer programs, but the district used some of its ESSERS funding to cover the cost of programming.

At Jefferson-Morgan, more than 30 students took part in the high school credit recovery program.

“I can’t over-emphasize the importance of credit recovery. The more behind students get, the more likely they are to drop out,” said high school principal Brandon Robinson. “Without it, those 30-plus students are coming back this school year behind in three, four or five classes, and they feel like they’re in too deep get out, and that’s when they drop out.”

Administrators said the extra summer school learning time will be especially helpful in addressing academic setbacks among low-income students and those with limited internet access.

Mental health support

There also will be an increase in mental health support for students.

That’s important, says Marianne Smith, a social worker at Washington Health System’s Children’s Therapy Center.

“It’s almost too soon to know what the long-term and even the short-term effects are,” said Smith. “One thing we know is that when kids are taken out of their social environment, as COVID did, they weren’t getting the cognitive and social exposure they should.”

At the elementary level, school offers an opportunity to develop children’s interpersonal skills, while at the middle school and high school level, students hone their self-identity, and the COVID-19 pandemic impacted those opportunities.

“Children with a lot of support will probably catch up fine. Those who come from low-income families may be lagging behind a bit more,” said Smith. “That doesn’t mean these kids are going to be flawed. It will be easier if they have the supports in place. Those who don’t have the supports might need more one-on-one assistance.”

With ESSERS funding available, said Smith, it will be the responsibility of schools – as they’ve done in the past – to address students encountering social and emotional issues.

“We didn’t have as many eyes on kids when they weren’t in school,” said Smith. “My primary concern, I’d say, is the children who have been stuck in their homes 24/7, where they’re not getting support they need, might not have access to internet, might be subjected to domestic violence, abuse and neglect. Some families experienced financial instability and loss of jobs, lack of food as a result of the pandemic. Those are the kids who will need counseling.”

School districts, including Laurel Highlands and J-M, plan to bolster their guidance offices and increase the number of social workers on staff.

Orr noted that, while summer school programs have been beneficial for students as they prepare for the upcoming school year, it’s not a permanent fix.

“We’d be naive to think our summer program is one-and-done,” said Orr. “We’ve set this up to be a continuing, ongoing program for the next few summers. Our kids aren’t going to be all caught up when the summer programs end, but it’s been a great start.”

Laurel Highlands’ Wallace said he’s optimistic about student performance in the 2021-22 school year, in part because of programming students took advantage of this summer.

“I feel like we’ll be pretty good. I feel that our students are resilient,” said Wallace. “They’re looking forward to getting back to what is close to a pre-COVID environment. We are going to give them as close to normal a school year as we can.”

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