In Virginia, state officials canceled a small selective summer program for lack of staff. In Wisconsin, school system leaders notified 700 students they could not be enrolled in summer classes because there weren’t enough teachers. And in rural Oregon, Superintendent Ginger Redlinger is still hiring for programs that start in June and August.
“We’re not sure we can fully staff them,” Redlinger said, as she also sympathized with depleted educators who need time off to recharge.
As school systems open for summer sessions, some are seeing the fallout of a punishing pandemic school year. Many would argue that the 2021-2022 school year was among the toughest they’ve experienced — with extreme staffing shortages, clashes over masking and quarantines, political tumult nationally, widespread exhaustion, students who needed extra support, and, as one school leader put it, “uncertainty around every corner.”
Dan Domenech, executive director of the AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said summer programs have not been spared from some of the same problems. Federal pandemic relief funds have helped school systems, but they are being used on a wide range of efforts.
“The push to get children caught up is not going to be realized fully because the staff isn’t there to do it,” he said. School districts “are offering whatever they can offer."
Summer school classes, once viewed as remedial, have evolved over the years. Students attend to gain credits, catch up academically, ward off learning losses, explore new topics or participate in enrichment activities. Many are low-cost or free, especially intended for vulnerable students. Community organizations and other groups also offer summer camps, activities and learning programs.
In Madison, Wis., the school system’s “Summer Semester” included seats for 3,520 students — but not for hundreds of others who wanted or needed it. Emails went out June 1 saying there was no more space.
“We have received a tremendous amount of interest from families looking to participate,” school officials wrote. “Although this is great news, we are unfortunately experiencing unanticipated staffing challenges.”
The 26,500-student Madison Metropolitan School District is paying less this summer than it did last, when it used federal pandemic relief funds to bump teacher pay to $40 an hour, said spokesman Tim LeMonds. Teachers get $28 an hour this summer — with federal money steered elsewhere.
Still, this year’s $28 an hour base pay reflects a 12 percent increase from the previous base pay of $25 an hour, LeMonds noted. The school system is continuing to recruit teachers and has recently been able to re-enroll 100 of the 700 students who were turned away. “We are working really hard to continue in that direction,” he said. They are also connecting families with community programs, he said.
Elsewhere, eye-catching pay hikes or bonuses have succeeded in attracting staff — or officials are finding other creative ways to offer well-staffed programs. St. Louis Public Schools are paying teachers $40 an hour this year, from roughly $25 an hour last year. Support-staff pay jumped $10 an hour above the usual rate.
“This is the first time we’ve had a waiting list to teach summer school,” said Charles Burton, the school system’s chief human resources officer.
To spark student interest, summer classes in St. Louis are being framed as “summer camp,” with hands-on experiential learning for all and Friday field trips for younger kids. More than 6,000 students signed on, bigger than last year — and about 30 percent of the 20,000-student district.
Others took different paths. Los Angeles officials said they focused on hiring teachers throughout the academic year, adding nearly 2,500; they do not expect summer school shortages. “We’re very confident we’ll have enough teachers to do the work,” said Ileana Davalos, chief human resources officer.
Davalos said working during summer months still allows educators time to catch their breath; the hours are shorter and programs don’t start immediately. “There is time to refresh yourself,” she said.
Pay increases are not without trade-offs. Pushing up hourly pay rates in one area can mean that nearby school systems struggle to hire staff, said Ronn Nozoe, chief executive of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “Neighboring districts suffer,” he said.
The 2021-2022 school year was once thought to mark a return to normalcy. Instead, in-person school coincided with staffing shortages that left many teachers covering extra classes during their planning periods. Other employees stepped up for cleaning and cafeteria duty. In several areas, National Guard troops pitched in to drive school buses.
At the same time, schools contended with coronavirus surges and heated debate about masking and quarantine policies. Parents argued about whether schools were really safe. And political issues intensified, amid book bans and uproars about critical race theory and the teaching of gender identity and sexual orientation.
Maryland teacher Leslie Appino, who works in the state’s largest school system, in Montgomery County, said the stressors of 2021-2022 were like nothing else in her two-decade career. Usually she teaches in the summer, but this year the constant demands and pressure — the “sheer exhaustion" of it all — made summer work a bigger decision.
"I debated back and forth,” she said — persuaded in the end by the extra income and in-person classes. “I’m looking forward to it,” she said.
Educators support summer school and summer camps, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “They know the programs are incredibly important to kids,” she said. Any shortages for the summer likely reflect year-end burnout and the ongoing national teacher shortage, Weingarten said.
High schools in Independence, Mo., have made summer school more appealing this year by moving to four-day school weeks — so there are three-day weekends throughout the summer. “It helped with the recruiting,” said Randy Oliver, assistant principal at Van Horn High School.
School systems pay for summer school with a mix of federal, state or local funds, because in all but three states there is no dedicated funding stream, said Jennifer McCombs, research director at the Learning Policy Institute, a national education think tank. In lean budget years, some strapped districts don’t offer summer school, she said. But the pandemic has increased attention on expanded summer learning — and billions of federal dollars have been steered to schools, some of which can be used in the summer. Research has shown that the cost of a district-run five-week program, for six hours a day (including academic instruction and enrichment activities) was on average roughly $1,500 per student in 2020 dollars, McCombs said.
In the North Marion School District in Oregon — about 40 minutes from Portland — Superintendent Redlinger said the rural district of 1,670 students expects a smaller program than last year, partly because many older students are worn out.
Still, Redlinger figures she needs to hire 11 more teachers and seven more assistants to cover a variety of summer offerings, including a program for migrant children and a high school session in August. Teachers receive pandemic pay of $65-an-hour this year, though Redlinger wants to make sure educators have time to recover after a difficult two years. “They need it, and they deserve it,” she said.
In Virginia, Arlington is faring better than last year — when it had to notify parents that its program for 5,000 students was shrinking by 40 percent for lack of teachers. This year, nearly 4,900 students are enrolled, said spokesman Frank Bellavia, with 25 teaching spots left to fill, he said.
One change: Bonuses have been doubled this year — $2,000 for teachers and $1,000 for instructional assistants.
But it did not go as well for a residential summer program focused on medicine and health sciences, offered by the Governor’s Schools in Virginia. State officials canceled the program, for high school students, for lack of staff, said Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education. They are hoping to find places in their other summer programs for the 26 students who were affected.
Before this year, Pyle said, programs were canceled because of the pandemic, but “this is the first time a program has been canceled due to a lack of personnel."