Reading, writing and bike riding: How schools spent summer helping students recover from pandemic

August 4, 2021

Students practice identifying species in the school garden at Verde Elementary in Richmond during summer camp.

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Bicycles typically aren’t allowed on the blacktop at Verde Elementary School in Richmond. But this year, scooters and bikes are a key feature of the school’s summer program aimed at getting students reacquainted with both in-person play and learning.

As schools pivoted to distance learning during the pandemic, school enrollment in California plunged. But even the students who had steady access to the internet and managed to keep up in an all-new online environment still lacked the same quality instruction and emotional supports they have in a typical year.

“I really think we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg of how far our kids have fallen behind. So, we want to attend to academics, certainly foundational literacy skills and grade-level math,” said Verde Elementary principal Eric Acosta-Verprauskus. “But first, we need to remember how to be with each other. You know, let’s feel safe and let’s make sure we feel inclusive.”

Recent studies say students will show up in the fall behind in math and English. Some of the loss stems from students who simply did not enroll during the pandemic year. In California, enrollment fell by 3%, or 160,000 students, the largest drop in 20 years.

To acclimate students back to campus life, districts across California are expanding expanded their summertime programs to create slots for more students who may have missed critical academic concepts.

Another major focus is simply helping kids feel more at ease through play, cultural lessons and even counseling so they are ready to learn again.

Photo courtesy of Verde Elementary

A student displays an art project she created during Summer Camp at Verde Elementary in Richmond.

As of July 22, 87% of reporting California school districts said they are offering learning opportunities over the summer, including tutoring and mental health services, according to data from the California Department of Education. And 65% said they are specifically offering enrichment opportunities for students to try new things.

“A restorative summer filled with reconnection, enrichment and joy, followed by a return to full in-person instruction, is what’s best for our students,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said. “We still have a long way to go in our recovery, but providing our students with more support and opportunities is exactly how we bring California roaring back.”

Verde’s voluntary summer program is open to students in kindergarten through seventh grade, and nearly half of the school’s students signed up. The school’s parent liaison, Marta Nieto, called caregivers of students who struggled academically or were frequently absent during distance learning to encourage them to participate. But many families signed up simply so their children could benefit from some extra socialization and time to be a kid again.

“We’re seeing joy in our kids again and tears from staff and parents who brought their children back and are just so glad to have the support. It feels as good as it’s ever felt,” said Verde Elementary principal Acosta-Verprauskus. “I didn’t know what to expect this fall, but I think we’re all just ready to be together.”

The five-week summer program meets daily from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. For the first hour, students and teachers work on social-emotional skills, like practicing deep breathing or stepping away from a stressful situation to reflect on how to best help a peer who is struggling emotionally. The second hour is all academics. Donning masks, students spend time back in the classroom reviewing important standards from the previous year, typically led by teachers who were with the same students during distance learning.

The final hour is all enrichment and play, from mural painting with local independent artists to plant and agricultural science in the school garden.

A highlight for many students is the weekly bicycle rodeo, where a local nonprofit called Rich City Rides sets up a streetlike obstacle course on the blacktop for students to practice road safety and bike around their school grounds with friends while listening to Top 40 hits.

“We have to signal with our hands which way we are going,” an out-of-breath fourth grader named Javier said recently as he zoomed through the course on his bike.

One third-grade student named Adilene was thrilled to show off her purple scooter, even pointing out some dog fur that got on the handlebars from riding around at home. “It’s so much fun seeing my friends and riding with them,” she said.

The feeling was mutual for adults coming back to campus, too.

Credit: Sydney Johnson/EdSource

Students practice bicycle road safety during summer camp at Verde Elementary.

“We’re seeing joy in our kids again and tears from staff and parents who brought their children back and are just so glad to have the support. It feels as good as it’s ever felt,” Acosta-Verprauskus said. “I didn’t know what to expect this fall, but I think we’re all just ready to be together.”

This is the first year that Verde Elementary is offering any kind of summer programming for its students, Acosta-Verprauskus said. The program was made possible by an influx of cash that West Contra Costa Unified and districts across the state received this year from Covid relief funds.

President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan set aside nearly $122 billion for schools over three years and requires that states invest at least $1.2 billion of their portion on summer programs that draw from research-backed methods of supporting students both emotionally and academically. California must spend 20% of its $13.7 billion American Rescue Plan allocation providing summer school, tutoring, counseling or mental health services. In California, $4.6 billion was also set aside in the state’s 2021-22 budget for summer school and enrichment this year.

“We know that summer learning is something that we all have to lock arms and do the very best to get our students reengaged and reconnected. And not just with academics, but really with each other. Programs like this really establish those relationships again after this pandemic,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said during a recent visit to Los Angeles Unified, which has been offering traditional classes and enrichment this summer to help students recover from the pandemic year.

“The past 18 months have been incredibly challenging for our students in L.A. Unified and across the country,” Kelly Gonez, president of the Los Angeles Unified School Board, said during the visit. “Many in the communities I represent not only faced a switch to online learning, but saw their families directly impacted by the virus and the economic crisis it brought on our communities.”

Across California, school districts are putting Covid dollars to use this summer with an emphasis on bringing fun back to schooling. But not all summer programs are created equal, and any effort to curb pandemic-induced learning challenges will vary depending on what schools offer.

A recent study from Stanford University found that academic gains from summer school are often modest, especially if students are focused purely on a single subject area. But dynamic programs that incorporate various projects, disciplines and active learning opportunities are more likely to have positive results for students later.

The study looked at Aim High, a five-week summer enrichment program in San Francisco for sixth to ninth graders from low-income communities across the Bay Area. The program has been around for more than 30 years, giving organizers a chance to fine-tune classes ranging from algebra to coding or climate change, as well as kayaking, photography and Latin dance.

The probability of being chronically absent in eighth grade was 4.8 percentage points lower for students who attended the program for all three of their middle school summers compared with peers who did not, the study found.

Near Sacramento, Elk Grove Unified students are learning how to act, sing or perform slam poetry. In San Francisco, students can practice their aim with archery classes at a local park.

In Fresno Unified, schools are offering various types of summer programs ranging from credit recovery in high school to literacy-focused programs for the youngest learners. The district is also partnering with local organizations to offer programs like a free camp at the local zoo, a robotics camp for elementary students and drone aviation lessons for high schoolers.

“We cast a wider net to get more kids involved because we know the needs are bigger now,” said Assistant Superintendent Jeremy Ward, noting that enrollment across summer school and enrichment programs this summer increased by more than 6,000 students. “While we definitely want to address learning needs, we wanted there to be social-emotional supports this summer.”

In Los Angeles Unified, more than 100,000 students are participating in summer school courses and enrichment programs. The district is hosting more than 200 virtual courses on topics ranging from African American art history to zoology, plus in-person camps at 337 elementary and middle schools with activities such as guitar lessons and animation.

Credit: Sydney Johnson/EdSource

Artist Fredericko Alvarado paints a mural that students designed during summer camp at Verde Elementary in Richmond.

Vanessa Gonzalez is an English teacher at Luther Burbank Middle School in Los Angeles. This summer, she’s teaching summer school English in person in the mornings and a virtual enrichment course in the afternoon on Mexican culture and heritage.

“Having that social interaction is much more important than the academic content right now,” Gonzalez said. “The academics will come. Students need social-emotional learning and help rebuilding their confidence now.”

Gonzalez said she notices a large difference in engagement between those who attend her morning classes in person versus online.

“I taught a novel earlier this summer, and having that hands-on physical book, Post-its and highlighters really made a difference so students could really engage,” she said, adding that it’s easier for her to hop around the room and talk with students about what they’re learning or stumped on in the classroom. “The ones at home had a PDF and audiobook, and while we have digital editing tools, there’s less accountability.”

But even with the added funds for summer school this year, districts including Los Angeles Unified have faced challenges getting students and staff to return to school during sacred summer off-time. Overall enrollment numbers were similar to the district’s all-virtual summer classes offered in 2020, district data show. This summer, as concerns about a delta variant also loom, many students have opted for online courses.

Back in West Contra Costa Unified, teachers at Verde Elementary are gearing up for a school year unlike any other as students return from a year of at-home learning. Some are re-evaluating lesson plans to incorporate more hands-on and playful activities that make students associate school with something positive again. Others are preparing to weave in past concepts that students might have missed during distance learning.

The summer school program also set up additional in-person counseling services for students experiencing trauma from the last year. More than half of California students who responded to a survey by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said they experienced serious stress, anxiety or depression at least some of the time during the past year.

For fourth grade teacher Merrill Pierce, summer has given her a chance to gauge how her students are doing and what supports they might need this fall.

“Being back here, it makes me think about how important it’s going to be to rebuild classroom culture this year. There’s no precedent of how to do that after a pandemic,” she said. She added that distance learning was an extreme challenge for her, and she knows there’s another tough year ahead. But she’s excited to be back. Even the little things, like writing with a pencil instead of a keyboard, are novel again.

“This is what the kids are craving,” she said. “It’s never been so joyful to say take out your notebook.”

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