Matt Katz: I'm Matt Katz in for Tanzina Vega you're listening to The Takeaway. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the school year in many ways for students, teachers, parents, and for me and my family this past school year felt long, overwhelming, crazy, my two kids will have logged only about two dozen in person-days combined and then approximately a million hours in front of screens. Like so many students, they've been forced apart from their friends and teachers and normalcy but in-person full-time school looks potentially to be on the horizon for the fall.
In the meantime, some experts worry about just how much of a setback the pandemic has been for students, especially students of color and low-income students. To help them catch up on lost learning time many school districts are turning to summer school, I wanted to know exactly how we're rethinking summer school in this pandemic year. I turned to Anna North senior reporter at Vox, who recently reported about this
Anna North: Last year, folks were really, really concerned about what would happen with kids being remote for so much of their school time. With that mental so it was a lot of kids couldn't even log on at all because they didn't have internet access, they didn't have computers, they didn't have a quiet place in their house. There's a lot of worry and we're just starting to see the data come in. Some of it has been encouraging. There was one assessment by a group called NWEA, that found that actually, kids didn't lose that much ground in language arts or in reading.
They lost some ground in math, but not a huge amount. There was one really huge problem with that data. It was that about a quarter of kids weren't even present in it so they didn't even take those assessment tests. Those tended to be kids from lower-income families, kids we were already really worried about their educational access this year anyway. I would say we don't know, there's some data that says some kids said, okay, but I think some kids might have really struggled.
Matt: Then there was just the disparity in terms of the kids who were in school and weren't. It seemed to me, at least, in my world, the kids who went to private school were in actual classrooms, whereas the kids who went to public school were either there part-time or they're very inconsistently.
Anna: 100% private schools had the resources to push to open more quickly. I think there's also evidence that kids in lower-income school districts had less in-person time that Black and Latin x students had less than person time. I think there's a correlation between families and communities with more privilege and whether their kids got to be in a classroom or not.
Matt: Does this mean that summer school is going to be a thing? What's the picture look like around the country in terms of summer schooling?
Anna: Summer school's totally going to be a thing, about half of the districts in one survey I looked at were planning some form of summer school, and a lot of places are beefing up their offerings, maybe they had some response in the past, but they're going to have way more and something much more substantive this year. Part of that is that they're getting significant money from the federal government to do it.
Matt: You mean from the stimulus package?
Anna: That's correct. There's money specifically earmarked for summer programs or enrichment. There's also money in a discretionary way I think the districts can use. Basically, the federal government is saying here, "We're really encouraging you to do summer learning, we're going to pay you to do it."
Matt: What is summer school going to be like? Is it going to be like summer school [unintelligible 00:03:29] or something different?
Anna: That's the million-dollar question. Some places have released detailed plans already, some have not yet. We do know that what experts are recommending is a little different from how summer school might have looked in the past. Summer school, frankly, has a bad reputation, probably, especially if you're a kid, you grown at the thought of summer school. There's this idea that it's only for remedial education. Frankly, even experts will tell you that schools weren't always using those summer hours super well, and they're just one person said something about putting kids in the corner and having them do math worksheets. It doesn't necessarily work well.
What a lot of folks are calling for summer across the board but especially the summer is more fun making learning the opposite of having kids do worksheets, if you can imagine what that is. I think there's a lot of folks who will tell you that outdoor activities in the summer are also just great for learning, getting kids excited about learning. They're good for children, they're good for their brains, anything I think that gets kids moving, gets them playing, everybody I talked to really emphasize the importance of play.
Matt: Tell me a little bit about the history and the origins of summer vacation, in general, in this country. We have this crazy system where parents almost universally have to work all summer unless they're teaching and the kids are almost universally off and have nowhere to go. I mean, it just, [laughs] it's wild to me that we've set this up this way. Why do we Have it like this in the US?
Anna: Before I started reporting on this, I didn't really know much about this history. There are a lot of misconceptions. I think in general, there's the idea that summer was for kids from farming families so that they could go home and help out on the farm but actually, according to at least one historian, I talk to you that's not true that, in fact, kids weren't necessarily needed the most on the farm during the summers.
Actually, that summer vacation started in cities. You think back, before air conditioning, right? Cities get really hot, schools get really hot, parents, especially parents with the means to do so would actually start taking their kids out of school in the summer, and they would flee the city, they would go to their summer homes in the country or whatever.
Then there came a movement, in the 19th century, around the turn of the century, to standardize school calendars. The folks who are doing this might have been on the wealthier side themselves, the people who are in charge, they're standardizing the calendar, they're going to say, "We're going to take a break, we'll do it in the summer when people are off summering. Anyway, they're leaving the city, let's give them that chance to take a vacation with their families." That's the origin of the summer break.
Matt: Are there any movements afoot to try to get rid of the summer break to have kids go to school all year round?
Anna: There's a lot of movements for that and there's been a lot of criticism around summer break in the last few years. There's been a lot of research on the so-called summer slide, which is the idea that kids, over the summer, they lose a lot of the knowledge that they gained during the school year. From what I can tell the research on that is really mixed. There's some research suggesting that lower-income kids do experience a summer slide, middle and upper-income kids don't. There's the concern that summer widens inequality in that way.
I've seen critics though, say that there's less evidence for the summer slide. I think it's complicated. I don't know that anyone right now unnecessarily wants all students to go to school all year with no break. I think it's more a question of looking in targeted way at who is some are hurting, who is it helping? How can we create summer programs that will both serve families who don't have childcare when school is out, and also serve kids to make sure that even if they're not necessarily doing their worksheets, they're still keeping their minds engaged, they're still excited about learning when fall comes around?
Matt: There seems to be that if we were to approach this creatively, there's so many things that a kid can learn over the summer that doesn't involve math worksheets. If they're out, playing in the dirt, learning about bugs and birds and climate change, that seems like a great opportunity to rethink the way we see the academic year and summer vacations, obviously, it requires resources to do something like that. Is that a possibility that maybe the COVID-19 pandemic and this strange period of time that we're in gives us a chance to reimagine the way we think about the academic year?
Anna: Yes, I think so. First of all, we've already seen some summer programs that are really creative in this way, even going back decades. There's a program called Aim high that has really good research behind it that is effective at keeping kids engaged with school in the fall, but in the summer, it offers them real cool things, dance classes, horseback riding, these are programs that already exist and can be emulated elsewhere.
I will also say that with the pandemic, in some ways, I wish that it would inspire more creativity when it comes to education. I wish that, for example, in places that were warm enough, there would have been even more of a movement toward outdoor schooling but you did see some movement toward outdoor schooling. Thinking about what it means to get kids out in the woods, or even just out in the park or even in Brooklyn, some schools just took over local streets.
A certain amount of creativity in terms of how you use public space, I think has come from this pandemic. I would hope that we can keep that creativity going and keep going the question of, what is the classroom? Does the kid need to be between four walls every second, or are there ways to expand what school can mean?
Matt: Anna North is a senior reporter at Vox. Anna, we always appreciate your reporting, and it's always great to talk to you. Thanks.
Anna: Thanks so much.
Matt: What do you think about summer school and summer vacation? Have your thoughts about this evolved? Tell us by calling 877-869-8253.
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