Preventing learning loss requires long-term solutions

May 1, 2020

Nick Melvoin visits an elementary school classroom in West Los Angeles before the global coroinavirus Covid-19 pandemic outbreak.

This week, as Governor Newsom floated the idea of returning to school in July to minimize learning loss due to the pandemic, he called on us “to think anew with respect to the school year.”

We are still working to determine when it will be safe to reopen schools, but I share his underlying concern — the loss of learning and widening of opportunity gaps from this crisis could be nothing short of devastating.

The loss of learning each year is not only due to budget cuts from the last recession that have never been restored, it’s also the result of a stagnant system that has resisted scrutiny for decades. But now, in the wake of this crisis, we have a chance to think creatively and invest in more equitable, long-term solutions.

Time away from school widens the achievement gap, and it has for decades, predating this pandemic. Every summer, districts send students home for months without instruction, enrichment, childcare and — largely — without food.

More affluent families ensure that this time is not lost, investing in enrichment opportunities like camp to ensure their children are developing socially and academically, but most families living in poverty simply don’t have these options.

LA Unified’s standard summer school system, which mirrors other districts, does nowhere near enough to fill in those gaps. Summer school is typically available only for students who have failed courses, been identified as needing intensive remediation, or who are receiving special education services — leaving more than 90% of students behind.

This year, because experts are predicting a COVID-19 slide much more severe than typical summer slide, LA Unified has committed to an expanded version of online summer school for all students, to address learning loss and engage students who are not able to participate in regularly scheduled activities.

It will include tiers of support with some typical remediation courses occurring online and other offerings focused on enrichment and project-based remote learning.

State leaders should consider the benefits of providing similar programs every summer.

The format could look different from the regular school day, with some students taking traditional courses led by teachers who sign up, others enrolled in community colleges or participating in internships. For younger children, this could mean a free, enriching camp experience or play-based childcare option.

Currently, children in low-income areas have limited access to subsidized or community-based programs.

With the proper funding, school systems would be well-situated to serve as either the provider or coordinator to ensure that every student is meaningfully engaged over breaks, regardless of income level.

And the rethinking should not stop with summer school — we should also look at summer break itself. The school calendar is a holdover from agrarian times when children were working during summer months. While we may not be ready to start in July this year, Gov. Newsom is right that we should consider all options, including rethinking the school year. We can’t accept that school breaks or closures mean we give up on learning for kids.

We could think about intermittent, shorter breaks (not the ad hoc year-round calendars implemented solely to reduce overcrowding that we have seen) to mitigate the learning loss resulting from longer breaks, while still ensuring that families and teachers have time to rest and recharge.

We can imagine counting instructional minutes rather than days, to be spread strategically across the course of a year, or thinking about more competency-based models to measure learning.

At the very least, we can provide a more flexible calendar in the form of optional days or the ability to conduct “home learning” days with our newly acquired virtual techniques.

And, as we know this virus could disrupt our school calendars for the next several years, we should start considering the possibilities and preparing for the post-pandemic future of schools now. This is especially relevant in California, where wildfires and power shut offs disrupted the calendar long before the pandemic. I advocated for making up instructional time then, and this crisis has only exacerbated the need for such a plan.

As the Governor was speaking about learning loss and an early open to the school year, a panel of experts presented legislators with a bleak forecast for education budgets next year. For too long, students have had to bear the brunt of economic downturns. If the state is committed to mitigating learning loss, it should support districts in providing flexibility as well as strategic, long-term investments in kids’ futures.


Nick Melvoin is an elected school board member, representing the Westside and West San Fernando Valley in District 4 of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

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