MERCED COUNTY OFFICE of Education students will hike through a wildlife preserve, fish in the Merced River and take sailing lessons from a local yacht club as part of this year’s summer school program. Elk Grove Unified students have the option to learn to act, sing or perform slam poetry. San Francisco students can take archery at a local park or classes in a high-rise downtown building that is usually home to tech workers.

Although school districts are still offering academic programs, summer school this year is supposed to be fun. Experts say schools won’t be able to combat learning loss until they deal with the social and emotional needs of children who have been away from their peers and teachers for more than a year and may have experienced other trauma during the pandemic.

“Our kids haven’t been on campuses,” said Erin Sipes, a program specialist with Elk Grove Unified, the state’s fifth-largest district. “Our kids don’t recognize their teachers in real life. Our kids haven’t had authentic experience sharing learning. We still can’t share materials, but we can get kids in person and give them the opportunity to have structured social interaction, let kids be kids and have authentic play.”

Many districts are expanding their summer programs — often limited to just students who are falling behind — to include all students. To entice them to enroll, they are offering a diverse selection of fun programs that will give students a chance to reconnect with their peers and get acclimated to being back on campus.

Schools should offer as much summer programming this year as they can, said Jennifer Peck, president of Partnership for Children and Youth, an Oakland-based organization that advocates for extended learning programs for students from underserved communities.

“California is dead last in reopening, and there are going to be a lot of kids this summer that need to be in a structured learning environment with other kids and with adults, regardless of whether it’s a traditional summer program or not,” she said.

Plentiful funding

School districts have plenty of money to spend to make that happen. The American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund is providing nearly $122 billion to states and school districts over three years. It requires that states invest at least $1.2 billion on summer programs based on strategies proven to improve student outcomes academically and emotionally. School districts also are required to use at least $21 billion for initiatives to address the impact of lost instructional time.

California is spending $4.6 billion for summer school and extra learning time to confront the academic setbacks most students, particularly low-income students and those with limited internet access, have faced during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Too many students have experienced interruptions in learning and negative effects on their social and emotional well-being due to time apart from friends and community,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in April. “Summer presents a key opportunity for school districts and community partners to accelerate learning and provide new avenues for students to safely engage with each other in fun activities. Let’s use this moment to re-imagine what fun, engaging summer programs can look like.”

Research shows that the most effective summer learning experiences, academic and social, are full-day programs designed like a camp and staffed by teachers and community-based educators, Peck said. They should be enrichment classes, which are generally designed to be fun, interactive and designed around students’ interests, she said.

“We are encouraging districts to step away from the old summer school frame that feels punitive to children and families,” she said. “They make you feel like you are going to summer school because you have done something wrong.”

“The need for recovery is magnified this year. School connectivity is not typically a focus. Previously the focus was on intervention and academic support.”

Erin Sipes, Elk Grove Unified

In Elk Grove Unified, near Sacramento, that means a combination of academic and enrichment camps, as well as partnerships with community organizations to expand summer programming.

Third- through fifth-grade students who enroll in the arts camps can take part in a theater program, paint, dance or create music. Students in science camps can learn to code, fly drones, work on a robotics project or challenge themselves to build an aircraft that can hover over a wind tunnel. Elementary students also can take part in grade-level appropriate literacy camps.

To encourage socialization, the district also has activated high school clubs this summer and is offering courses like band, slam poetry, music, performing arts and visual arts to its older students in an effort to engage them with their campus and peers, Sipes said.

Sipes said summer school is particularly important this year because being in distance learning has made it difficult for teachers to know which kids may need counseling and other social and emotional support. Elk Grove Unified has increased the number of counselors and support staff to check in with students during summer school.

“The need for recovery is magnified this year,” Sipes said. “School connectivity is not typically a focus. Previously the focus was on intervention and academic support.”

Summer school with small classes of about 10 will give school staff the opportunity to acclimate younger students who haven’t been on a campus and haven’t learned to wear a mask or to social distance, Sipes said.

Summer programs help ease students’ fears

This summer the students in the Merced County Office of Education’s mild to moderate special education program and continuation high school program will learn to sail on Yosemite Lake, fish in the Merced River or take hikes at a nearby wildlife preserve, said County Superintendent of Schools Steve Tietjen. He also is hoping to contract with a local kayaking company.

The outdoor activities are designed to offer life experiences to students at high risk of dropping out of school and special education students, who generally have the highest social-emotional need, Tietjen said.

“That is part of why we are doing the outdoor educational programs — trying to build the social-emotional health of the students, giving them a sense of confidence that many kids have lost,” he said. “Some are concerned about leaving the house if they haven’t been in in-person instruction.”

Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest school district, also is bulking up its summer programs. It is adding more classes and working with more community partners than in previous years in order to offer enrichment and academic summer classes to any student who wants to attend, said Superintendent Austin Beutner.

Students in L.A. Unified will be able to enroll in programs, such as the Summer Fender Middle School Music program, which will offer over 5,000 students music lessons, as well as free guitars and amplifiers. It will include a class on the voyage of the Titanic, which includes cameos by James Cameron, who directed the movie “Titanic.”

The district, which plans to offer academic courses in the morning and enrichment in the afternoon, plans to add more classes and additional community partners, Beutner said.

Despite the influx of funding, summer school won’t be the same across the state. In rural areas that have had campuses open longer, some even the entire school year, there isn’t the same urgency to increase summer school offerings as in more suburban and urban areas where campuses have only recently reopened and where many students are still in distance learning and have not returned to in-person learning.

Demand soars

Demand for summer programs for kids is high in San Francisco, where schools didn’t start reopening until last month. The city’s annual Summer Together program, a partnership between the city, county, San Francisco Unified and community-based organizations, has always filled up quickly, but this year’s demand is even higher.

The program, which prioritizes registration for students in foster care, special education students, English learners and those from low-income families, will offer multiple summer camps throughout the city, as well as virtual arts and academic classes, learning hubs and free books for every student.

The program will have as many as 25,000 slots for students, including 10,000 through San Francisco Unified that will be taught by certificated teachers. This is a total increase of about 5,000 slots since before the pandemic, despite mitigation measures that limit the number of students inside a camp.

The biggest change this year is that everything is free. In past years, families had to pay for some programs provided by nonprofit or for-profit private camps, although fees were often based on a family’s income.

There also will be an increase in mental health and academic support for students. This means adding tutors to the program and training camp staff to recognize symptoms of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues, said Maria Su, executive director of San Francisco’s Department of Children, Youth and Families.

San Francisco Unified officials have reported that students with the highest needs in the district have struggled to do well in distance learning and are behind in reading, language arts and math.

“And so we feel we need to do this,” Su said.

This story originally appeared in EdSource.