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D.C.-area school systems recruit exhausted teachers for summer instruction — with varying success

Third-grader Maddox Cory did not get a spot in Arlington Public Schools’ summer program. He’s dyslexic and behind in reading.
Third-grader Maddox Cory did not get a spot in Arlington Public Schools’ summer program. He’s dyslexic and behind in reading. (Jen Cory)

A previous version of this article incorrectly said all Alexandria school staff who work in-person will receive a bonus of $500 every two weeks. Only licensed teachers and instructional support staff who work in-person will receive the bonuses.

At this point in the coronavirus pandemic, Jen Cory’s son Maddox, who has dyslexia, is a full grade level behind in reading. So Cory was thrilled when she heard that her third-grader had qualified for expanded summer instruction being offered in Arlington Public Schools.

Cory figured the extra schooling would help Maddox catch up. It would also provide much-needed child care, because she and her husband work full time.

But in early May, the promise of summer school disappeared: Not enough teachers had signed on after battling their way through a brutal pandemic school year, Arlington officials informed parents in an email. The program for 5,000 students was being cut back to 3,000 — and Maddox was one of the thousands who lost a spot.

Cory was devastated. And so was her son.

“He knows he’s not at the same place his friends are [in reading], and so he was so excited about the opportunity,” Cory said. “When I told him, he said, ‘That’s not fair.’ ”

During a summer when student needs and teacher shortages are high, Arlington and other school districts in the D.C. area are doing what they can to keep school going during the summer. As they recruit educators, they are offering perks such as double pay and $1,000 bonuses — but it remains a challenge, given that teachers are exhausted from an unprecedented, strange and difficult year-plus of work during a public health crisis.

The demand from families for summer learning, and especially in-person summer learning, is high and growing. As vaccination proceeds, safety restrictions start to lift and the public glimpses a semblance of normalcy, more and more families are willing to trust school safety measures. Fairfax County Public Schools is planning for at least 30,000 summer students.

Parents, school officials and students alike see summer school as a key step in repairing pandemic learning loss. Children in all grades and every kind of home situation fell behind during a time of widespread online learning. But the losses were greatest among the most vulnerable children — those with disabilities, those living in low-income households and those who are English-language learners. These students are being targeting for summer instruction.

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But if families are easy to persuade, teachers are not. Many worked long hours and weekends as they struggled to overhaul their methods of instruction several times in short order — to online teaching, in-person instruction and sometimes to a daunting mix of both.

Many educators said it was important to step away and regroup.

“I’m tired of looking at a screen and I’m tired in general,” said Glenn Miller, a high school biology teacher in Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools. “I need a summer and my kids need a summer — and I just want to recharge.”

He added that preparing for a return to five-day in-person instruction in the fall — as Montgomery and other systems have planned — will require great energy. “We’re going to need full batteries to make sure that we get up and running effectively,” he said.

To make summer work more attractive, school districts are using financial incentives. Arlington and Fairfax recently announced that summer teachers will receive regular pay as well as one-time bonuses of $1,000. Instructional assistants will get $500. Loudoun County, using funding obtained from coronavirus relief packages, has doubled pay for summer school teachers, spokesman Wayde Byard said.

Montgomery, Maryland’s largest district, is offering “premium incentive pay” of $200 a week. Prince George’s County summer school employees are being offered 20 percent extra in pay.

But the enticements are sometimes proving insufficient, as happened in Arlington.

Arlington spokesman Frank Bellavia said the school system — which enrolls 23,000 students — has hired 175 elementary school teachers and is recruiting more. Under the pared-down summer program, Arlington expects to enroll about 1,900 elementary-schoolers and 1,200 middle- and high-schoolers, Bellavia said.

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Cory and her husband have started searching for a tutor. The going rate in Arlington is $80 an hour, Cory said, so this will probably be a significant expense.

After agonizing over the decision, Cory also recently opted to take a partial leave from her job over the summer to help Maddox with his reading. She isn’t thrilled about the forced break.

Whenever Maddox asks her how he can learn to read like his friends, Cory tells him that Mommy and Daddy will figure it out. That the family will find a solution.

A growing demand,

and promises to keep

In other places, summer school is still a work in progress.

In Alexandria City Public Schools, which enrolls 16,000 students, officials have vowed to offer virtual summer classes for all children who want them. A smaller group will get in-person instruction: children who are suffering academically, socially or emotionally, students with disabilities, those who are learning English, and high-schoolers who failed some of their classes.

The system’s executive director of instructional support, Gerald R. Mann Jr., said he does not yet know how many teachers Alexandria will need. Families are still filling out a form, due Monday, that gauges interest in summer instruction. Licensed teachers and instructional support staff who work in person will receive a bonus of $500 every two weeks, Mann said.

In Fairfax, whose 180,000 students make it the largest district in Virginia, spokeswoman Helen Lloyd said officials anticipate needing more than 6,000 classroom teachers this summer, on top of resource staff and assistants. Most summer students will attend in-person schooling, Lloyd said.

She declined to say how many summer staffers Fairfax has secured to date.

“Our hiring process is ongoing and so we do not have specific details at this time,” she said. “We are hopeful we will hire as many teachers as needed.”

In neighboring Loudoun, spokesman Byard said his district is anticipating that about 1,200 elementary-schoolers will attend summer school, which is open to all. How many middle- and high-schoolers are interested is unclear, but their instruction will be a mix of online and in person. Elementary students and students with disabilities will go in person.

Loudoun has hired 140 elementary school teachers for the summer, Byard said. He did not provide information on how many middle and high school teachers the system has secured, but said, “We expect to be fully staffed for summer school. . . . We don’t anticipate reducing the number of students.”

The District’s traditional public school system plans to use its federal funding to significantly expand its summer program, with 19,000 in-person and virtual summer slots for its more than 50,000 students. Enrollment is still open. Among the new summer options: programming for prekindergarten students and in-person acceleration academies for all grade levels to help students get acclimated after being away for so long.

The school system plans to hire 357 teachers for its traditional summer programs. It has sent offers to 70 teachers, 50 of whom have accepted so far.

It plans to hire 1,118 teachers for the acceleration academies, which span a few weeks toward the end of summer. More than 630 teachers have accepted positions at these programs so far.

Teachers working in person at these summer acceleration academies will receive the union-negotiated premium pay of $40 per hour.

“We will continue to closely review student registration numbers for summer programs and adjust staffing accordingly,” Liz Bartolomeo, a spokeswoman for the school system, wrote in an email.

As the school year ends, many districts expand summer school options

Every charter school has its own summer plan. KIPP DC — the city’s largest charter network — will have limited summer options since it already has an extended school year. The network is partnering with outside contractors to provide camplike activities and literacy intervention. A few smaller charter schools are partnering with the Department of Parks and Recreation to provide in-person recreation and academic activities.

In Prince George’s, students in kindergarten through fifth grade will be offered in-person summer school, while older students will get their instruction virtually. The county, home to Maryland’s ­second-largest school system, will prioritize students with the most significant learning loss. School officials did not have numbers on teachers or students.

And in Montgomery, more than 3,400 teachers have applied for summer positions, along with 2,150 support staff. Together they would be able to serve the more than 23,000 students who have so far registered for summer programs, which vary in length from one to five weeks and are being offered both in person and virtually, with families choosing the approach that best suits their children’s needs.

Registration remained open, and the school system of more than 161,000 students expected that it would ultimately see an enrollment of about 35,000, as it did last year.

“We anticipate student demand will continue to grow,” spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala said.

School officials are monitoring enrollment and staffing and “will continue working toward our goal of serving all interested students this summer,” she said. There are no plans at this time to cut back on seats or program offerings, Onijala said.

'It recharged me'

Dionna Ricks, who has spent 29 years as a teacher in Montgomery, signed up to lead classes for English-language learners this summer. She is optimistic, even as she acknowledges that the pandemic school year has seemed like the longest one ever.

She feels prepared, she said, because she taught summer school last year. “It recharged me,” she recalled. “It connected me with the kids.”

Ricks said it helps that summer school begins in July, leaving a break between the school year and a summer program that lasts just a month.

“It's important to rejuvenate and refuel,” she said.

In Arlington, another teacher is also hoping to refuel — but that desire led her to forgo summer teaching. The teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said she is worn out after navigating a complex teaching setup that requires her to instruct two separate classrooms at the same time, while also managing online learners.

Her roughly 20 in-person students are split to meet social distancing guidelines. She has an assistant who helps, helming the classroom in which she is not physically present, but it’s still exhausting.

“I’m burned out. I don’t have the normal drive I have,” she said. “Teachers have to be innovators all the time — they see a problem for a kid and they say, ‘I’m going to create a solution’ — and I just don’t have that right now. And I’ve had to forgive myself.”

Ingrid Gant, who heads the Arlington Education Association, said she is hearing similar sentiments from many members of the teachers group.

“You can’t expect the educators to just turn around after all that and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to teach summer school this year,’ ” she said. “You just can’t.”