John Locke Update / Research Brief

Should students be required to attend summer school due to COVID-19 school closures?

posted on in COVID-19 Series, Education, Education (PreK-12)
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Yesterday, I outlined the cases for and against requiring disadvantaged students to repeat their current grade next year.  I concluded that grade retention is a decision best left to parents or guardians in consultation with teachers, administrators, and staff.

Summer school is another way to address student learning loss due to COVID-19 school closures.  Proponents of summer school argue that a six-week session that begins in mid-July and concludes a week or more before the first day of school (to accommodate teacher workdays) would allow teachers to cover content missed from March to June.  Presumably, subjects would be limited to the core subjects of math, English, science, and social studies. Depending on the circumstances, the courses would be taught online, in person, or a combination of the two.  Participating public schools would provide special education and counseling services, as well as transportation and food service for face-to-face instruction.

In an article published by the Brookings Institution, Douglas Harris of Tulane University recommends that Congress set aside funding for schools based on the number of students that wish to participate in summer school.  He estimates that employing 1 million (of the total 3 million) public school teachers to teach a six-week summer school session would cost $8.1 billion.  Harris argues that supplementing the incomes of teachers would boost local economies, aiding communities that were hit hard by layoffs and furloughs.

Andy Rotherham of Bellwether Education Partners agrees that summer school may produce economic benefits, but he also believes that it would offer political and social advantages.  He argues that “education advocates will be playing a stronger hand if they can say schools did absolutely everything they could to rise to this challenge and serve kids rather than just play defense.”  Moreover, schooling offers “structure and organization” for families who have had little of both during school closures.

Harris and Rotherham offer compelling arguments for instituting an optional summer school for public school students.  Moreover, the summer reading camps mandated under North Carolina’s Read to Achieve law may provide a template for how to conduct summer sessions for students.

Elected officials and state education leaders in states that decide to offer a summer session have little time to waste.  Schools need sufficient time to hire teachers and staff, alert families of the summer session, and acquire instructional materials.  If schools offer online summer instruction, school officials need time to ensure that participating students have a device and internet access.  If schools choose in-person instruction, they need time to create bus drop-off and pick-up schedules and complete school building maintenance and cleaning. If the state waits until June to decide, then they risk conducting a summer session that resembles the haphazard migration to online learning initiated last month.

At this moment, it is unclear whether Congress will set aside funds for summer schools.  Governors have flexibility in the use of CARES Act funds earmarked for public schools. Still, I hope that most will choose to use federal funds to supplant lost state and local tax revenue for public education.  It will be challenging enough to find sufficient resources to support the upcoming school year, let alone have enough money for an additional six-weeks of summer instruction.  Another coronavirus relief bill is in the works, but, unlike the CARES Act, K-12 education funding may not be a significant component of the plan.

Time and money are not the only obstacles. Powerful business and tourism groups oppose summer schools because it encumbers thousands of potential workers and consumers.  I acknowledge that the focus on economic recovery is paramount and that enterprises that survive stay-at-home orders will struggle to regain their footing.  I am not convinced that summer school would impede their ability to do so. Even so, lawmakers may not want to take any chances.

As a first step, state education leaders should solicit input from instructional personnel and administrators.  If educators believe that missed content could be covered by adding additional instructional time during the 2020-21 school year, then that may be a better option. Educators could use an uninterrupted summer break to collaborate with colleagues and prepare new and expanded lessons for the coming school year.

I believe state education leaders should keep the summer school idea on the table until questions about funding and the persistence of COVID-19 measures are answered.  Otherwise, begin planning for the undeniably challenging school year to come.

As Vice President for Research, Dr. Stoops oversees the research team’s writing and analysis across the spectrum of public policy issues. He specializes in pre-K-12 education. Before joining the Locke Foundation, he worked as the program assistant for the Child… ...

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