Summer school might be just the thing to help students who faced setbacks due to COVID-19—but the benefits go far beyond just education.

By Melissa Mills
April 09, 2021
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An image of a child's backpack and lunch on a table.
Credit: Getty Images.

With experts calling for the safe reopening of schools for in-person instruction, especially as more Americans—and educators—are getting vaccinated against COVID-19, the focus is now shifting to summer school and how beneficial it could be for kids who've struggled through a year of remote learning.

President Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan aims to provide schools with the funds and resources needed to reopen quickly and safely, with a focus on summer and enrichment programs to help students who have been especially impacted by COVID-19.

"It is my top priority to get students back in the classroom for in-person instruction safely and quickly," Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a release. "I continue to hear from students and educators across the country who are eager to get back to in-person learning, and these resources will help schools not only reopen safely, but also to support students who were falling behind even before the pandemic. As states and schools use American Rescue Plan funds to reopen their doors, the Department of Education is committed to helping them build successful programs that will reach students most in need this spring, summer, and into the fall."

The Value of Summer School

The benefits of summer school are nothing new. From keeping up with schoolwork to having fun with peers, it's important to make sure that kids are engaged when the school year is through—and having summer school happen in person is key.

"It is important to remember that 2020 was not a 'lost year' for kids," says Dennis R. Maple, president and CEO of Goddard Systems, Inc. "Young children are resilient and continued to learn and grow through the pandemic. There are, however, benefits of a structured learning environment and of children being able to engage socially, face-to-face with their peers. In-person learning, over the summer and through the fall, provides children with an opportunity to playfully get back to some fun and familiar routines and confidently explore the world again."

Sandra Graham, director of training for Kiddie Academy Educational Child Care, agrees that in-person education plays an important role in children's educational achievement, health, and well-being: "When students learn from home, they miss out on instruction from their best teachers: Their peers."

Battling the COVID slide

While some students excelled with remote learning, many parents have felt the stress of the out-of-the-norm school year—and many students are falling behind because of it. According to a survey by the National PTA and Learning Heroes, 62 percent of parents think their children are behind where they'd normally be right now.

Students who were already at risk of typical learning loss over the summer are now facing more setbacks due to COVID-19. And as the New York Times reports, while upper-middle-class families can lean on museums, camp, and athletic programs over the summer, kids from low-income families are more likely to fall behind even more without the same enrichment opportunities.

That's why Secretary Cardona is working on the launch of a Summer Learning and Enrichment Collaborative, with funding specifically going toward summer programs to benefit "students from low-income backgrounds, students of color, students with disabilities, English learners, students experiencing homelessness, and students with inadequate access to technology."

Emotional and social well-being

Besides academics, students receive healthy meals, mental health support, and other services at school that haven't easily been replicated at home during the pandemic—but being present in a classroom also allows for the learning of social and emotional skills.

"Over the last year, there has been an important shift in awareness of the critical opportunity for social-emotional learning in school," says Helen Hadani, Ph.D., fellow at the Brookings Institution and member of the Goddard School's Educational Advisory Board. "In face-to-face settings, we see children learn about problem solving, communicating, and testing out new ideas. It is also highly creative and joyful for children. During the summer, in-person learning often allows more flexibility in classroom activities and different opportunities for lesson plans. This enables children to soak up the wonder, discovery, and exploration built into a curriculum."

And with more children facing mental health issues during the pandemic, summer school could be a good opportunity to help fight off the added stress, increased screen time, and especially the isolation they've have been facing.

"Students build relationships with their peers, which is particularly crucial at younger ages," says Graham. "Children learn from watching each other and from modeling what they see other children doing. That's a huge missing piece in remote learning because learning is a social endeavor."

Regaining a sense of normalcy

Families are clawing their way out of a year like no other, with vaccine distribution and safety precautions the only things helping parents and kids alike begin to get back to their pre-pandemic lives. Summer school could be one more way to help these families transition.

"Summer is often seen as a bridge period, from one structured-learning period to another," says Maple. "This year, in-person summer learning will offer an important path for parents seeking to help their children regain some normalcy, make up for lost developmental opportunities and, above all, have fun!"

He also points to the extra responsibilities placed on parents and caretakers throughout the pandemic, with virtual learning being one major factor adding to their stress. "We want parents to allow themselves some grace as they deal with the ups and downs of returning to a more normal way of life," says Maple.

Letting kids have fun

"School in the summer doesn't have to be the same as it is during the regular school year; it can provide the sort of play-based and exploratory learning experiences that are offered by camps," says Graham. "This summer, children need to do self-initiated activities that are rewarding for their own sake. This will create happier children now and lead to improved physical, cognitive, social, emotional and creative outcomes later in life."

Graham even notes arts and crafts, sports, swimming, riding bikes, and climbing trees as activities that can help your family focus more on fun and emotional health than stressing over school.

"Give your children as much space as possible and allow them to find their own way through the summer, possibly discovering new and exciting skills and interests that aren't measurable on standardized tests," she says.