Fourth grade student Cameron Guidry focused during his online class from his social distanced desk at the Delano Recreation Center in September 2020. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/Polaris, via EdSource)

As COVID-19 infection rates continue to delay the reopening of many schools across California, some education leaders have floated the idea of extending the school year to address learning loss among students at risk of falling behind. At the same time, concerns about mental health suggest longer may not necessarily be better.

In Los Angeles Unified, some board members have signaled support for additional instructional time, as the nation’s second-largest school district continues with distance learning. The district has adjusted academic policies over the past year to address a drop in attendance and a rise in failing grades among students.

“We want to look at every possible approach,” Los Angeles Unified board member Nick Melvoin said in a recent interview with EdSource. “The things that we have to figure out are resources: Do we have the money for the extended school year with agreement from the unions.”

Melvoin added that the school board may soon consider the possibility of adding 10 instructional days to the upcoming 2021-22 school year to address both the academic and mental health needs of students. California’s Department of Education currently requires that schools offer 180 days of instruction.

More time in the classroom

“We will be seeking to add more time in the classroom for the 2021-22 school year. An extra 10 days to work on the fundamentals in reading and math, help children deal with the trauma and anxiety caused by the crisis and rediscover the joy of learning in enrichment activities,” Superintendent Austin Beutner said in a recent broadcast.

For Los Angeles schools, an extended school year could mean an earlier start date, a shorter winter break, a shorter spring break or a later end date for the upcoming school year.

The idea also surfaced during a recent state Department of Education meeting, when board president Linda Darling Hammond and board member Patricia Ann Rucker agreed that “one thing we can think about is extending the school year timeline” in order to meet the statewide assessment requirements.

Many education experts, however, caution that the mental health of students must be prioritized as administrators discuss potential extensions to the school year.

“We have to be thoughtful in how we go about finding additional time to make up for what was lost,” said Pedro Noguera, dean of the USC School of Education. “What worries me is this feeling that we have to accelerate instruction to make up for lost time. I think that’s the wrong framing.”

Noguera instead recommends re-engaging students in school and addressing their mental health needs before moving forward with further instruction.

“I think the way we need to approach it is to think of this as almost like a traumatic event that’s occurred collectively,” he said.

He provided a hypothetical example of an earthquake that forced students out of classrooms for an extended period of time. Non-academic needs in that situation would require immediate attention.

“You can’t just focus now narrowly on academics,” Noguera said. “You’ve got to address those social and the psychological issues that accompany it.”

One student: ‘I’ve grieved a lot of things during this pandemic’

The social and psychological concerns have remained ever-present among students. Sierra Leone Anderson, a ninth grader who lives in the Mid-City neighborhood of Los Angeles, found it difficult to adjust to distance learning during the spring semester when schools initially shut down.

“I’ve grieved a lot of things during this pandemic,” she said. “The sad thing is I don’t even have time to process all of it because I have to finish this essay, or I have to show up to this one important Zoom or I have this test that I have to study for.”

During the summer, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, Sierra joined Students Deserve, a coalition of teachers, students and parents across L.A. Unified schools. There, she found fellow L.A. Unified students who shared some of her socially-minded interests. She’s since become civically active, submitting public comments during school board meetings and organizing online campaigns with fellow students.

Finding this new extracurricular and engaging activity renewed Sierra’s interest in her studies and helped her realign her priorities.

“I’ve realized that that’s what the pandemic has taught me — that you need to focus on your mental health and prioritize that over other things sometimes,” Sierra said.

If instructional days are to be added to the school year, creative curriculum changes are needed, according to John Rodgers, a professor at the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies.

“We want to extend the amount of learning opportunities available to students,” Rodgers said. “But if we’re going to do that, say during summer, we want to bring in opportunities for young people to experience art and creative and critical education during some of that extended, expanded learning time, so as to invite them back into their education in ways where they’re seeing it as meaningful and purposeful, rather than as some sort of punishment for the failure of our system.”

Summer learning at L.A. Unified

The summer program offered by L.A. Unified last summer can serve as an example of a successful model.

Typically available for a limited number of students, the district opened up summer learning to all 600,000 students, providing classes on animation, the science of sports, environmental science and astronomy, among other topics. A similar educational plan is in the works for L.A. Unified students to enroll in during the summer break this year

While addressing the mental health of students is important, so is the mental health of educators and staff, given that an extended school year requires additional teaching and administrative work time.

After a stressful and traumatic school year, teachers often count the days until the end of the school year, said Dr. David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

“When they’ve been through crisis events, it’s hard to engage them during that time,” Dr. Schonfeld said, referring to teachers. “What I normally say is, if … the teachers are highly traumatized too and overwhelmed, they need the time off.”

During a pandemic, the entire education infrastructure is overwhelmed, including non-district educational programs and the pool of substitute teachers. Teachers, Schonfeld said, must be taken into consideration as education administrators discuss ideas to help increase academic opportunities for students.

“We can’t just act like we can turn on the switch and things go back to normal,” said Noguera. “And in fact, I would say if we don’t want to go back to the way it was, we want schools to be better than they were.”

Story originally published by EdSource.