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Summer Programs Can Help Kids Catch Up After COVID

New research shows students will require ongoing help outside regular school time in hardest-hit areas
Summer Camp

It is often said that kids are resilient, but new research reveals why nobody can assume that students will automatically bounce back from missed learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Teaching and learning is a sequential process and each step in that process takes a certain amount of time,” explains Harvard economist Thomas Kane, “so when we have disrupted it, if you're not providing more time within each year, it's really hard to generate much more learning per year than you were generating before.”

Kane and researchers with the Center for Education Policy Research, where he is faculty director, and Stanford University’s Sean Reardon with the Educational Opportunity Project, have now scrutinized student math and reading test scores in grades 3–8, in 7,800 school districts in 40 states and Washington, D.C., between 2019 and 2022.

Among the new findings in their recently updated Education Recovery Scorecard:

Not everybody is in the same boat.

  • The impact of the pandemic on learning was large and influenced by where kids lived. The greatest disruptions were in the poorest school districts and those with more Black and Hispanic students, especially where schools were not in-person for much of the 2020-21 school year. For example, the typical student in the highest-poverty districts in the country missed three-quarters of a year in math — more than twice as much as those in the wealthiest districts.

Lessons can be learned from past disruptions.

  • The researchers analyzed longer-term achievement data in the decade preceding the pandemic, to provide broader context. What they found is that previous “shocks to achievement (large increases and decreases) for specific age cohorts have largely persisted, even four-five years later.” A sudden decline in achievement might have been driven by a particularly bad flu season or a large share of classes being taught by substitute teachers in a given year, for example. Historically, they explain in their report, it has been challenging for districts to increase the pace of learning after such disruptions.

Summer Opportunities

Students who missed out on a lot of learning during the pandemic won’t catch up by themselves without more instruction time explains Kane, and the summer months are a prime time to provide extra educational opportunities. However, given the mental health challenges associated with the pandemic, Kane is mindful that kids will need much more than extra school work piled on this summer. As school districts across the country wrap up the academic year, he suggests they use federal relief money to partner with others in their community, including “organizations that are already providing fun and engaging activities and add an academic component” that is connected to what kids have learned during the school year.

Kane highlights the work of the Massachusetts nonprofit, Boston After School & Beyond and its summer learning partnership with Boston Public Schools (BPS), as a possible model for other school districts, especially those that are already overburdened.   

Boston After School & Beyond finds places operating summer programs around Boston — including summer camps, athletic programs, museums, and colleges — and provides a financial incentive for the programs to add 90 minutes of academic instruction per day. The initiative allows BPS staff to focus on academic instruction and other organizations to recruit students and organize engaging activities. In many summer school programs, district staff are trying to do both.

For districts struggling the most with recovery efforts, Kane also suggests using pandemic federal relief money to:

  • Find other ways to add extra learning time into afterschool and weekend programs and school vacation weeks. As with the Boston After School & Beyond model, school districts could reimburse other organizations to add an academic component to their offerings and check student progress on educational software platforms such as Khan Academy, Zearn or iReady.
  • Extend the next few school years, which Kane believes is logistically the easiest way to add instruction time.
  • Plan for longer-term changes, such as an optional fifth year of high school or specific “triage grades” for kids who are behind and provide lots of extra help in certain subjects, such as reading and math. Currently schools are struggling to catch up students in all topics and grades simultaneously, Kane says. Where new legislation is needed, such discussions would have to start now with school boards and state legislatures.

Other key findings:

  • Within school districts, test scores dropped by similar amounts for all groups. Students of color, white students, and students from both higher and lower income families, all fared about the same.
  • Extended periods of remote and hybrid learning caused setbacks for students, especially in the poorest districts.
  • Community concerns also played a role in missed learning including social and economic disruption for families during the pandemic, levels of parental anxiety and depression, COVID death rates, and levels of “institutional trust,” measured by higher voter participation rates and response rates on the decennial census, not only school closures.

Next steps:

With federal pandemic aid for K–12 schools set to expire in the fall of 2024, the most affected districts will likely need extra state and local dollars to continue their recovery efforts, the researchers say, and future life outcomes will be shaped by the extent to which achievement gaps for disadvantaged students, exacerbated by the pandemic, are closed.

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