Like so many aspects of pre-pandemic life, COVID-19 continues to reshape how we think of education in radical and unexpected ways. Nowhere has this been more relevant than in the field of summer learning. Owing to the historic challenges and opportunities posed by the virus, summer learning providers engaged an unprecedented number of students with meaningful learning experiences and provided essential services to the young people who needed it most. Over 120,000 Maryland public school students attended summer learning programs between June and September of 2021, amounting to the largest expanded learning initiative in the state’s history.
The need for an undertaking of this scale was apparent to anyone working in the youth development space. Schools were among the institutions most severely impacted by the pandemic, blighted by recurring school closures and often hectic fluctuations between virtual learning and in-person instruction. This hybrid learning model had mixed results at best, and students frequently reported feelings of heightened anxiety and isolation as the lockdowns endured. “Learning loss” became a catchall phrase used to describe the academic, social, and emotional setbacks students suffered as the pandemic consigned them to their homes.
The opportunity to address these challenges presented itself by the spring of 2021. The advent of accessible vaccines meant that students and faculty could begin making plans to meet and learn in person again, while support for state and local school systems provided by the American Rescue Plan and other government spending initiatives provided the finances necessary to reintegrate students back into the classroom. As these plans began to crystallize, public officials quickly identified summer learning programs as an essential component of student recovery and dedicated funding to these efforts accordingly.
That nearly 1 in 6 public school students across the state received summer learning services with mere weeks to prepare is an incredible achievement. What’s more, these programs targeted students who suffered the most from school lockdowns by prioritizing those with low attendance, ESL students, and children with limited technology access. This equity-focused approach to program management was a lifeline for struggling students across the state, giving thousands of young people credit recovery opportunities, free meals, skills training, and perhaps most crucially, the chance to bond with peers and mentors.
The onus now falls on educators and public officials to understand and replicate the factors that contributed to the success of these programs. In a report published by the Maryland Out of School Time Network, partnerships with community-based nonprofits were identified as one of the most effective tools state and local school systems can use to improve student outcomes. School districts that made use of these partnerships were able to serve 50% more students and offer more diverse subject matter, largely owing to the personnel and expertise that these organizations provide.
The report also emphasizes upcoming fiscal cliffs that could threaten future program viability. While pandemic-era relief programs played an essential role in providing these services to students at scale, the ephemeral nature of these funding streams will inevitably require providers and school systems to identify additional revenues to compensate for the end of these recovery programs. To achieve long-term sustainability, elected officials will need to earmark funding specifically for expanded learning initiatives and find ways to distribute these funds in a way that promotes collaboration among relevant stakeholders.
Perhaps the greatest contributor to program success, however, was our willingness to see summer learning as more than a purely remedial education strategy. The experience of 2021 reminded us children are always learning whether they are in the classroom or not. Programs outside of school celebrate this by providing the space for students to connect with their passions, develop new skills, and build stronger relationships with members of their community. The true value of summer learning is that it forgoes rigid assessments in favor of personal growth and self-expression, emphasizing the notion that the most important lesson we can teach students is the value in learning for its own sake.
Aaron Dworkin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is CEO of the National Summer Learning Association. Ellie Mitchell email@example.com is executive director of Maryland Out of School Time Network.