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What American kids need this summer

To help students recover from a pandemic school year, experts are prescribing fun.

A masked kindergartner hangs upside down from playground equipment, her long hair dangling toward the ground.
A child plays with her kindergarten class in Brentwood, California, during the reopening of playgrounds at early education centers and elementary schools across the district on Monday, May 3, 2021.
Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG

For kids across the country, the 2020-’21 school year has been difficult, to say the least.

Many have attended class from their bedrooms, seeing their friends and teachers only on Zoom. Others have been unable to access even that much instruction because they don’t have a computer, an internet connection, or a quiet place to study. Even those who have returned to in-person school have faced a host of new stressors, from distancing requirements to fears of getting Covid-19, that can make the classroom an anxiety-producing place. And experts are worried that some students — especially Black, Indigenous, and other students of color, and those from low-income families — have lost countless hours of instructional time, a loss that could worsen educational inequality and put them at a disadvantage down the road.

To help students catch up, many districts are planning for summer school — 47 of 100 urban districts surveyed in April by the Center on Reinventing Public Education had some form of summer program in place, up from 32 percent around this time last year. But summer school in America doesn’t exactly have a great reputation. Dan Weisberg, head of the education nonprofit TNTP, recently told the New York Times that a typical remedial summer program for fifth-graders gives them “third-grade math problems and has them sit in the corner.”

And singling out low-income students and students of color for summer classes while other kids have fun is hardly fair, Catherine Augustine, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corporation who has studied summer education, told Vox. “Why should they have to sit in a building and do math all day while their higher-income peers are off in some fancy camp?”

That’s especially true when kids are coming off a difficult and traumatic year of school and need breaks and emotional support as much as they need academics.

Experts say there’s a way to balance all these needs and help kids learn this summer. But it will require districts to rethink summer school now and in the future — to look beyond the four walls of the classroom and make space for something every kid should get to have this summer: fun.

Why do we even have summer vacation?

It’s often said that summer vacation is a relic of America’s farming past, but that isn’t quite true.

Rather than rural kids needing the summer off to help with the harvest, as the conventional wisdom goes, summer vacation actually started in cities, education historian Kenneth Gold told PBS NewsHour. Before air conditioning, urban schools would get extremely hot in the summer, and families with money would leave the city to vacation in cooler locales. So in the 19th century, school calendars around the country were standardized to give students a break during the months when some families were pulling their kids out anyway — and when school was an unpleasant place to be for everybody else.

The change “reflected the rhythm of economies in the city, the habits of wealthier people who were beginning to flee hot cities in the summer months,” Gold told Vox.

Today, some American schools (though by no means all) have air conditioning. But summer can still offer kids a break from the day-to-day routine of school. “Physical activity, being outside in nature, free play, using your creativity, trying on new skills and things that maybe you don’t normally do during the school year — that’s an important part of summer,” Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education and founder of the nonprofit Challenge Success, told Vox.

In recent years, however, there’s been a growing opposition to the idea of giving students time off in the warmer months. “Summer vacation is bad for kids and for America’s economic future,” Bridget Ansel, special assistant at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, wrote at Politico in 2014. “We need to end it — or at the very least provide stimulating summer enrichment for those who can’t afford it.”

The argument is that, during the summer, kids forget what they learned during the school year, a process sometimes called the “summer slide.” Some research shows kids losing about a month of learning, on average, Ansel notes, with the effect more pronounced among low-income students than among children in more affluent families. Because of this, some teachers, advocates, and policymakers — including former Education Secretary Arne Duncan — have called for a longer school year, perhaps bringing us closer to the 248 days per year that were once standard in New York City (today it’s about 180).

And it’s not just students who struggle with summer. Unlike kids, most parents don’t get the summer off, which means they need some alternative form of child care while they work. Wealthier families can afford camps and other summer programs for their kids, but many can’t (the average cost of day camp in the US is about $76 per day, according to Care.com, going up to $172 for sleep-away camp). Lower-income families are often left scrambling to find supervised activities for kids in the summer that won’t break their budget.

Those were the pressures on summer before the pandemic hit. Now, kids around the country are coming off not one but two school years transformed by Covid-19. As Gold put it, “the stakes are higher this year.”

“This summer is different”

While experts were once concerned about students falling behind after just a couple of months, some are worried about what will happen to kids’ learning now that many have been out of classrooms for more than a year. A fall 2020 analysis of student test scores by the nonprofit NWEA showed only a moderate drop in math test scores during the pandemic and no drop in reading, but also raised a major concern: About a quarter of students didn’t take the test at all, perhaps because they were unable to access online learning. And those students were more likely to be Black, Indigenous, or other people of color, or to attend high-poverty schools — groups that face educational inequity even in normal times.

As a result of data like this, many fear the pandemic could not merely slow down kids’ academic progress, but also further entrench the inequality in America’s education system. To combat these problems, many districts are instituting summer school. New York City, for example, will offer “Summer Rising,” a $120 million expansion of its usual summer programming, which will combine academic coursework with art and outdoor play, all at no cost to families. Schools in Tulsa, Oklahoma, will participate in a program called Ready. Set. Summer! to offer enrichment in partnership with local nonprofits.

And the federal government is stepping in to help, with more than $1 billion set aside for summer enrichment in the American Rescue Plan, passed in March. Summer programs can be an “opportunity to accelerate learning, especially for those students most impacted by disruptions to learning during the school year,” the Department of Education advised in a handbook, released this spring, to help districts respond to Covid-19.

At the same time, summer school has a reputation as something of a slog. “I don’t think summer education as a quality educational experience has a great track record,” Gold said. In part, that might be because “we are too wedded to the notion that it has to be a continuation of what’s already happened in the school year.”

After all, he explained, if you give students a lesson during the school year and “it doesn’t work for them, and then you just give them more of the same in the summer, I just don’t think that’s the smartest move.”

And while many districts’ offerings look to be dynamic, putting students in a lackluster summer program could backfire — especially this year. “What I’m worried about is if summer school is looked at like a punishment,” Pope said. Months of Zoom classes have been so exhausting for kids that if summer education “feels boring and monotonous and tedious, you could actually do more harm than good.”

Instead, kids need something that gets them excited about learning again. “We’ve got to get the light back on in these kids’ eyes,” she said.

That could mean incorporating nature, physical activity, and a sense of fun into summer offerings, beyond just repeating what could be done in the classroom during the regular school year. The most successful summer programs already do this, experts say. For example, Aim High, a 35-year-old summer enrichment program for low-income middle-schoolers in the San Francisco Bay Area, uses a Barbie doll bungee-jumping competition to teach kids math skills — and in the afternoon, kids can choose from activities like horseback riding, kayaking, or dance classes. Recent research on the program has shown that it reduces student absenteeism and suspensions in the regular school year, as well as boosting their test scores in English.

Incorporating exciting, non-academic activities is “incredibly important for kids’ self-esteem” and their mental health, Augustine said. It also helps convince kids to attend, which is important since many summer programs are optional.

And making summer school fun is an equity issue, Augustine said. “If a district is targeting kids experiencing poverty” for its summer programs, she explained, then “it’s not really fair” if those programs are tedious or punitive.

Meanwhile, incorporating social and emotional learning will be especially critical this summer, since many students have spent the last year in relative isolation. “Kids need to be around other kids this summer,” Pope said. “They need to practice those really, really important social skills, communication skills, friendship-building skills,” which are important not just for mental health and well-being, but for learning as well.

Beyond giving kids an opportunity to socialize, schools also “might want to have a summer program that really gives kids an opportunity to talk about what they experienced over this past year,” their anxiety about the coming school year, or their desire for life to go back to normal, Augustine said. After all, “this summer is different.”

Indeed, as much as the summer can be a time for helping kids catch up, it shouldn’t be a time to add more anxiety, Margarita Alegría, a psychologist and chief of the Disparities Research Unit at the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Mongan Institute, told Vox. Especially for students of color and others disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, it’s crucial “to provide activities that might add enrichment but not at the cost of stress and demands.”

“If kids don’t feel emotionally stable,” she said, “it’s going to be very hard to teach them anything.”

The pandemic could force a rethinking of summer for the future

Covid-19 will continue to pose some challenges for schools this summer, especially since children under 12 cannot yet be vaccinated. While some districts, like New York City, will offer in-person programs, others, like Aim High, will be largely virtual. And Covid-19 risk may be a concern for parents considering sending children to in-person summer school — even as more classrooms reopen, a significant number of families are choosing to keep their children home, with four in 10 students in the country still doing all their learning remotely, according to one March survey.

But this year is by no means the last chance for districts to give kids a high-quality summer experience. The money in the American Rescue Plan will be available over the next three years, and even schools that may not have had time to plan ambitious summer offerings this year can still do so in the years to come, Augustine said. “I would encourage districts to think about this in phases.”

And overall, this year could be a time when districts reevaluate what they do in the summer to be more strategic — and more exciting — now and in the future. “I’m hoping that school communities are going to be creative with how to use the money that comes through to rethink how they want to do summer learning,” Pope said.

The goal, Augustine said, should be to “use the summer, but use it wisely.”