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‘Who’s ready for their brain to get bigger?’: To fight virus learning loss, Alexandria schools launch summer class

Alexandria City Public Schools first-grade teacher Christina Bohringer hosts her first day of Zoom summer school, meant to make up for coronavirus-driven learning loss. (Jozelle Dyer)
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The first-grade teacher held up the box that represented her highest hopes for the summer.

Facing a sleepy-eyed Zoom gathering of 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds, squirming slightly before computer screens at 9 a.m. Monday morning, Christina Bohringer asked the class if they’d received boxes, too. Everyone nodded: Alexandria City Public Schools had mailed learning kits to every one of the 14,500 students who agreed to participate in the Northern Virginia district’s special edition of summer school, which is free and meant to make up for coronavirus learning loss.

Bohringer, 41, rummaged inside her box and raised a crinkly metal sheet that winked in the sunlight streaming through the windows of her dining room, which she converted to a makeshift classroom months ago.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do with this tinfoil,” she said, “but it must be something ­science-y. Who likes science?”

Hands shot up, and Bohringer smiled. In fact, she had a pretty good idea what she’d be doing with the tinfoil. She had a pretty good idea of everything she’d be doing with the children for the next four weeks. Administrators and teachers had worked long hours to prepare a comprehensive month-long curriculum, a mammoth initiative launched in late April that ultimately involved the services of nearly 500 teachers, tech specialists and mental health counselors, required three dozen new hires and cost the district $1.7 million.

“It’s definitely costing a lot of money . . . and requiring a lot of teacher manpower,” said Alicia Kingcade, Alexandria’s summer school learning coordinator. “But we need to do this.”

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It represents one strategy being pursued by school districts to repair the educational damage inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic, which shuttered cam­puses across the United States in March. Although teachers everywhere pivoted as fast as they could to virtual school, education leaders across the country soon concluded that the outbreak, and its shutdown of society, would severely stunt learning for millions of children.

To defend against this, Miami extended its school year into the summer. Cleveland schools cut their curriculum to cover only essential subjects. In Virginia, Alexandria is one of the only school systems that is offering upgraded summer classes during the pandemic.

The learning, which began July 6 and will end July 31, is not mandatory but highly encouraged. Families were asked to opt out if they didn’t want to participate. Roughly 1,500 of the system’s 16,000 students did so, Kingcade said, citing travel plans or saying they didn’t want their children to suffer through so much screen time.

Lack of technology or access to the Internet were not cited as major hurdles, Kingcade said. The school already provides devices to students in third grade and above, and it has worked to send electronics to younger children, as well as to set up hotspots throughout the county. Plus Clever, the online platform Alexandria is using for summer school, is accessible on a phone, Kingcaid said, making things easier for some families.

Summer school will feature a mix of synchronous, or real-time, and asynchronous learning. Students can sign up for a few different forms of class: High schoolers can retake classes they failed last year, or sign up for entirely new classes, although those cost $285 unless the student qualifies for free- and reduced-price meals or has been severely affected by the pandemic. Students in fifth grade and above can choose a “boost course,” meant to prepare them for the next academic year. Elementary school students will spend the summer reviewing and reinforcing material they already learned.

And preschool students — for whom Alexandria has never before offered summer school — will be engaging in play and hands-on activities.

Sixteen years inside a classroom, Bohlinger said, taught her that July is the pivotal month: the exact stretch of the summer when children begin to lose the lessons of last semester. On Monday, she awoke determined to fight the forgetting, and was thrilled to see nearly half of her roughly 40 students had signed onto Zoom, more than she expected.

A half-hour into the lesson, Bohlinger finished cataloguing the supplies in the box. She lingered over the ball of yarn, the playing cards, the crayons and a baggie stuffed with pipe cleaners.

“That’s a lot of stuff we got,” she told the rising first-graders. “Do you think we’re going to have a lot of learning in our brains? Who’s ready for their brain to get bigger?”

Hands shot up. Two students, both wearing cat ears, nodded. A girl sipped from a purple water bottle, a boy made a face at the computer camera before dissolving in giggles and another girl clutched a turquoise stuffed animal to her chest.

Seeing the children — even from a long distance, on Zoom — felt right, Bohlinger thought. She’d known her answer immediately when she got an email from Alexandria administrators advertising summer positions. Teachers, who will earn $48 an hour for their summer work, were not required to teach. But within days of soliciting applications, Alexandria received a sufficient number, in combination with roughly 30 outside hires, to nearly hit their ideal ratio of 1 teacher for every 25 children. (It’s closer to 1 for every 35.)

Alexandria is paying for teachers’ work, and all the other accoutrements of summer school, by diverting money from other portions of the budget that, in some cases, no longer exist. For instance, the school is rededicating the funds typically allotted to field trips.

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But money, Bohringer said, was not why she wanted to teach. She worries what will happen to young children, deprived for months of the social interaction they would normally get at school and in summer camp. Virtual chatting with teachers and pixelated peers, she believes, is better than nothing — so now, she steered the class toward a group conversation about their pets.

One boy mentioned his dog. Another boy, misunderstanding the question, said he had a big sister, “a teeeeen-ager.” He frowned, and the class looked grave at the thought of a sibling so advanced in age.

“I used to have a cat,” said Alexa Schiesel, 5. “But I’m allergic now to all pets so I don’t have a cat. Its name was Mango.”

“Ringo?” Bohringer asked.

“Mango,” Alexa said, like the fruit.

That morning, she had carefully unpacked the contents of her learning box, tinfoil and all, and repacked it into her school backpack, which had lain unused since March. She had dialed into Zoom hoping to see the face of her “BFF” Connor, with whom she used to act out television shows and movies on the school playground.

He didn’t join the videoconference Monday. But she didn’t feel too upset.

Alexa will turn 6 near the end of July, when summer school is still in session — and she is hoping that Connor will join online Zoom class then, so he can celebrate with her.