The pandemic has been disastrous for children (and their parents, and their teachers). Children are missing academic, social and developmental milestones because remote-learning programs are poor substitutes for in-person classes. School absences have doubled. Many low-income, rural and homeless kids without reliable Internet access have stopped attending classes; one report last fall estimated that 3 million children might have received no formal education, virtual or otherwise, since March.
But even if we vaccinated every teacher and made every other adaptation necessary to get schools reopened tomorrow (and recent developments unfortunately suggest that ain’t happening), kids have already fallen behind. Resuming regular classes alone won’t be sufficient to recover this lost ground.
Absent other interventions, the Covid Generation might be held back for the rest of their lives by this year-long interruption in their learning, resulting in lower educational attainment and reduced earnings for decades. Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco recently estimated that pandemic-related learning disruptions will reduce the size of the economy over the next 70 years. Seventy years!
Here’s where summer school (and other kinds of extended learning) would come in handy.
Lengthy summer vacations have long been questionable, given research suggesting that many students “lose” some of what they learned the previous school year. But this year, the traditional summer break is even less defensible, particularly for lower- and moderate-income kids who’ve already suffered huge pandemic-related learning losses. Classes this summer and next, or other instructional time during the normal school year, are critical opportunities to make up for coronavirus-related learning disruptions, particularly since in-person instruction is likely to be widely available again by June.
But there are a few obstacles.
The first, obviously, is money. The Learning Policy Institute has estimated that it would cost about $36 billion to provide just 20 additional days of schooling for half of the country’s students. Both Biden’s budget request and House Democrats’ reconciliation bill set aside less (closer to $29 billion) specifically for learning losses.
They should aim bigger.
The notion that “this spending will pay for itself” has become somewhat of a trope, but it’s almost certainly true in this case. A recent study on school closures suggested that their long-term economic costs might reach hundreds of billions of dollars when students’ reduced future earning power is accounted for. Spending now to recover some of that lost learning would offer a substantial return on investment, as it “likely will avoid future [fiscal] deficits when the current schoolchildren enter the labor market,” one of the study’s authors, University of Pennsylvania professor Dirk Krueger, told me.
Another possible hurdle is teachers’ collective bargaining agreements.
Teachers’ contracts typically do not require them to work through the summer. Many educators are understandably exhausted, and some early polling suggests they may not be keen on shortening their own summer break. More money might persuade them otherwise, of course. So could additional urging from national leaders; Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, has been advocating “voluntary” summer programming to help kids get “their mojo back.” More leadership is necessary, and soon, to get adequate numbers of teachers and other staff on board. This negotiation can’t wait until May.
Some families may also push back on proposals to extend the school year, particularly higher-income parents who enroll their kids in camps and other summer enrichment programs. Frankly, I’m less concerned about what these families do, given that they have more resources to help their children catch up. But policymakers should start building the case for summertime schooling now, and talking with lower- and moderate-income families about ways to make an extended school year work best for them. Given the child-care crunch this past year, many parents may welcome additional instructional days, not only for educational purposes.
Finally, there are infrastructure issues.
A lot of schools don’t have air conditioning, for example, and sweltering July classes may not be terribly conducive to catching kids up. Schools should begin making capital investments now, or find other suitable facilities — or otherwise plan ways to get students additional instructional and tutoring time during the regular academic year, such as through longer school days or weekend classes.
There are a lot of urgent tasks at the moment — including that preliminary step of just getting schools reopened. But discussions about plans for summer and other extended learning need to happen now, more frequently and more loudly. We can’t let children down yet again.