Summer School Is a Hot Idea Right Now. Could It Work?

The idea makes sense, so much so that at least two governors, a national union leader and President Biden are behind it: extend this school year into the summer to help students make up for some of the learning they lost during a year of mostly remote school.

By summer, more teachers will be vaccinated against the coronavirus. Transmission rates might be significantly lower. And it will be easier in warm weather for students and educators to spend time in the open air, which is safer than being indoors.

Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia promoted the idea on Friday, saying that schools should make summer classes an option for families. Gov. Gavin Newsom of California and Randi Weingarten, the powerful president of the American Federation of Teachers, have offered similar endorsements. Boston teachers and the district have started talking about summer options. And Mr. Biden is expected to ask Congress to approve $29 billion to fund summer programs and tutoring as part of his pandemic stimulus package.

But if parents and students have learned anything during this crisis, it is that even simple, intuitive ideas are hard to pull off in a public education system that is simultaneously decentralized and highly bureaucratic.

Governors have few ways to compel districts to expand summer offerings. Local contracts typically make it impossible to require teachers to work over the summer, and a recent poll of educators found that only 19 percent support a shorter summer vacation in 2021 or 2022.

Teachers who did agree to work over the summer would need to be paid at a time when districts are already stretching their budgets to cover costs such as updating ventilation systems, hiring school nurses and testing staff and students for the coronavirus.

Kimberly Adams, president of the Fairfax Education Association, the teachers’ union in Virginia’s largest school system, said that reactions from teachers, parents and students to the idea of extending the school year were “definitely mixed.”

Her union in the suburbs of Washington has fought efforts to reopen schools before teachers are vaccinated, clashing with affluent parents who have pushed to get their children back in classrooms. But many of those same families typically send their children to pricey summer camps, or travel when school is out, and may be unlikely to sign up for a longer academic year.

Stephanie Fox, a high school math teacher in King George County Schools, where only a small number of students in the district have the option to attend in person, said she doubted that many educators in her district would be willing to teach summer school.

“Many of us are exhausted,” she said. “We’re only halfway through the school year, and I probably put in as many hours the first half as I normally do in a full year.”

While calling on Friday for schools across Virginia to offer in-person classes by March 15, Mr. Northam, who is also a pediatrician, suggested that extending school into the summer months would help students overcome the learning gaps that have accumulated during the pandemic.

“We know this plain fact: Children learn better in classrooms, and that’s where they need to be,” the governor said, adding that he expected that most of the state’s teachers, who are currently eligible for shots, would have the opportunity to be vaccinated in the coming months.

Summer school could be funded by federal stimulus dollars, he said, and should prioritize students who have fallen behind the most. But he left it up to local districts to make plans.

Though many policymakers like the idea, there is no consensus on what summer learning should look like.

Ms. Weingarten, the national union president, has said districts should use federal stimulus money to make the summer a “second second semester.” The focus should be on enrichment activities that “help kids get their mojo back,” she said, such as art, music and sports, in addition to core academics.

Dan Weisberg, head of a nonprofit group that provides consulting services to districts, said it would be important to design a program specific to pandemic needs. Typical summer remediation offers fifth graders “third-grade math problems and has them sit in the corner,” said Mr. Weisberg, who is chief executive of TNTP, formerly the New Teacher Project. Instead, he said, students should be given intensive help on the most important concepts they have missed from earlier years so they can then tackle grade-level content.

In Boston, the local teachers’ union is working with the district to brainstorm summer program ideas that could be funded by federal money, said Jessica Tang, the union president. The goals would be to help the youngest students catch up on basic reading skills, to serve students with disabilities who may have lost access to services, and to help all children work on social skills and get accustomed to being in classrooms again.

Ms. Tang said she knew some teachers who would be willing to work over the summer, especially if part-time options were available. But she also hoped community organizations and nonprofit groups could take a role in staffing summer programs.

After months of stressful labor negotiations focused on issues like ventilation and virus testing, Boston schools began a phased-in reopening this week. “A lot of teachers do need a break for their own mental health,” Ms. Tang said. “We want them to be ready for the fall, and they need some time to heal themselves.”

Year-round school calendars are not unheard-of; a handful of districts have shifted to systems that provide numerous shorter breaks throughout the year instead of one lengthy summer vacation.

Contrary to popular belief, summer vacation is not a relic of the nation’s agrarian roots. Farm parents most needed their children’s help during spring planting and fall harvests, so schools in the early 19th century often met during the summer and winter.

By the late 19th century, however, school calendars looked a lot more like they do today, with city school buildings becoming hot, humid and uncomfortable during the summer. (Some still lack adequate air-conditioning.)

Research has shown that while upper-middle-class families often use the summer for structured activities like camp, athletic programs and visits to museums and libraries, children from low-income families can fall behind academically, in part because their parents cannot afford expensive enrichment programs and may not have time off from work to facilitate other activities.

But attempts to reform the school calendar to close these gaps have often run into opposition from parents who do not want to give up what they see as the birthright of a traditional long American summer.

Some education advocates hope that the disruption of the pandemic will help shift attitudes over the next several years, making it more palatable to help students who are struggling by keeping schools open over the summer, and by introducing longer school days and weeks all year round.

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Jonny Richards

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