Way back when my parents were in high school, the Gershwin brothers (and Dubose Hayward) wrote Porgy and Bess, an American opera that became famous, popular, and controversial, as well as beautiful. Among its legendary songs—arias, really—is “Summertime and the Livin’ is Easy.” (For a particularly glorious rendition, listen to Ella Fitzgerald.)
The fish may be still be jumpin’—at least in places that haven’t been overfished—but there are wildfires burning in Canada, Phoenix is running out of water, the Supreme Court is about to give many people heartburn, China’s jets are zooming too close to ours, we’ve only just barely escaped a debt crisis, and a former president seems to be on the verge of multiple indictments.
On top of which, the kids are now about to finish school for the year—in some places already have—and parents face a different set of challenges even as their daughters and sons kick up their heels in blissful freedom.
Some of those challenges have been around forever, such as how to keep them occupied and out of trouble without completely disrupting parents’ lives and work. That’s a lot easier for families with means—summer camps of every flavor, vacation at the shore, maybe an enrichment program or two—but challenging nonetheless.
“Summer learning loss” has been around forever, too, always more acute for boys and girls who don’t (or can’t) burrow into summer reading lists or just read for fun. But for millions of kids today, it comes on top of “Covid learning loss” and months, if not years, of evaporated schooling.
Well-designed summer schools are a partial antidote, but they’re nearly always optional for students, and far too many parents have not bothered to enroll their young ‘uns. Some schools and districts have found them hard to staff, whether because burned-out teachers don’t want the extra work or because money’s tight. (The latter excuse is less credible while federal relief dollars still slosh.) Nor are “traditional” summer schools tightly matched to the catch-up needs of pandemic-inflicted learning loss—or, for that matter, the acceleration needs of high achievers.
Technology affords countless opportunities for summertime learning, skills development, and knowledge building—hundreds of platforms and programs await exploration—but it affords even more opportunities for playing around, wasting time—and being naughty—not to mention staying indoors and turning into plump and pallid couch potatoes. If the tech options aren’t structured and supervised—one more challenge for parents—we daren’t assume that they’ll move kids in positive directions.
“Going out to play” isn’t as simple as it once was, either, both because a lot of parents act like helicopters and because it’s not all that safe in a lot of places (not that schools have been secure bastions in recent years).
As they face possible risks and hazards in all directions, what are today’s parents to do with their kids during those long hot days and weeks of summertime? Putting on my grandpa hat, I naturally favor generation-skipping activities and expeditions of various kinds, but understand that’s not always possible—and certainly isn’t likely to fill the whole summer.
I also favor shortening those “whole summers,” not just by offering optional programs, but mostly by extending the school year itself, as a number of charter schools and a handful of districts have done. It’s good for everybody: Kids learn more, teachers get paid more, parents have less down-time to fill or fret over. As the “Prisoners of Time” commissioners pointed out back in 1994, the 180-day year has long been obsolete, yet we haven’t done much about it. Only North Carolina requires more than 180 days (just 185), and many jurisdictions settle for fewer or leave it entirely up to local decisions. This is a realm where policy changes could make a big difference.
Meanwhile, parents will, as always, cope as best they can, availing themselves of parks and playgrounds, of day camps and sleep-away options, as well as summer schools, neighbors and neighborhood activities, public pools and libraries, willing relatives and friends, technology, and maybe even the odd book or two. I wish them well. Kids have more to learn than ever before, and not just those who lost a lot during Covid. But they need healthy bodies, too, plus social skills and emotional well-being. Summer can help.
The livin’ isn’t as easy as we’d like. But make the most of it we shall. And the day after school ends, my wife and I have an expedition in the works with two of the grandkids.