As summer nears, school districts begin ‘scenario planning’

Saturday “academies” and extending the current school year are among the possible ways state and district leaders say they plan to use the summer months to counter some of the learning loss expected due to school closures, uneven internet access and delays in implementing formal online instruction.

“We’re at the beginning of the conversation of what summer might look like,” California State Superintendent Tony Thurmond said last week during a press call focusing on parents’ early experiences with remote learning. 

With $16 billion potentially available through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act for K-12 education, leaders can begin to discuss whether some of those funds will be directed toward summer school. 

“If districts want to think in innovative ways about how they could be bringing that money to bear on summer learning. they can use the dollars for that purpose,” said Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, a network of current and former state and district superintendents. 

He said his organization would also press for additional funds for education in the next stimulus package and that it should be significantly “bigger than the phase three stimulus” because school districts are concerned not only about summer learning loss, but also the economic downturn’s impact on budgets for the 2020-21 school year. 

Magee added the Federal Communications Commission is also “sitting on” $2 billion in E-Rate funds that could be “strategically deployed right now to great benefit for students.” 

‘Opportunity for creative collaboration’

Because it’s unclear, however, when districts will be able to open buildings or when nonprofit organizations that normally provide summer learning programs will be able to operate, the most a lot of leaders can do at this point is “scenario planning,” said Aaron Dworkin, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association.

Members of the association’s New Vision for Summer School Network, which includes roughly 50 school districts from across the country, as well as nonprofit and foundation partners, are discussing three possible directions, Dworkin said.  

The first is that summer programs will still be conducted in person, but would start later. It’s also possible summer learning would be completely virtual. A third possibility would be a hybrid model with multiple smaller groups if restrictions on group size are still in place. 

District leaders “are sitting at home in their living rooms trying to pull this together,” he said, adding he recommends they begin to collaborate with the range of organizations, such as libraries, parks, museums and other organizations that typically provide summer learning.

“Everybody sees this as an opportunity for more creative collaboration than has ever been done,” Dworkin said, adding NSLA is also working on creating a “summer learning rapid response task force” to provide districts with guidance. “This is the moment when all these barriers can be broken through and people can think beyond their district and their nonprofit.”

‘A line of sight on every student’

With some recommending online instruction keep rolling through the summer to prevent more learning loss, and some districts, such as the Rochester School Department in New Hampshire, already ending their school years earlier than planned, there are a variety of opinions on how districts should proceed. 

In his comments, Thurmond highlighted Long Beach Unified School District — which last week announced Deputy Superintendent Jill Baker as successor to longtime Superintendent Chris Steinhauser — as one system discussing programs such as Saturday academies and summer enrichment programs. 

In the Dallas Independent School District, Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said the district will focus summer programming on students who are furthest behind. And Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has also proposed a month of summer school for students most likely to fall further behind in school.

But Magee noted there are “a lot of unknowns of who has lost learning during this time.” Predictions released last week suggested some students could be as much as a year behind in math by fall. 

Districts are already having trouble reaching all students virtually, which raises questions about the challenges of continuing to connect with them over the summer if programs remain in a virtual format. Data released Monday by Fishbowl, an online discussion platform, showed 55% of more than 5,600 teachers responding to a survey said less than half of their students are attending remote classes. 

Magee said there has been a grand effort “to get a line of sight on every student” and highlighted the Phoenix Union High School District in Arizona, for example, where Superintendent Chad Gestson, created an “analog” system “just to make sure every student was getting a call.”

Dworkin suggested districts also need to think about ways to reach students who were already at risk of dropping out. And he noted the growing body of research showing text message “nudges,” if used well, can help students avoid the summer melt phenomenon or persist in college. 

“These are things that are applicable to the moment we’re in,” he said. 

Magee stressed district leaders should be planning not just for summer, but “for a 2020-21 school year that looks quite different” because there is still the possibility of “rolling closures” in the fall.  

And Dworkin added, “we’re going to be catching up from this for multiple summers.”

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