EDITOR'S NOTE: On April 20, 2020, Governor DeWine ordered that schools should remain closed to in-person learning for the rest of the 2019-20 school year. Thus, the first option presented here has been rendered unfeasible.
As COVID-19 related closures stretch into the sixth week, students are now facing the threat of significant learning loss. A recent study by NWEA found that if students return to school in the fall having not experienced continuous instruction during the extended closures, they might make only 70 percent of their reading progress compared to a normal year. The numbers are worse in math, where students in some grades could return to school with less than 50 percent of their typical learning gains.
As of publication of this piece, Ohio schools are physically closed through May 1. No one is quite sure what will happen after that, but given that twenty-three states have ordered or recommended school building closures for the rest of the year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Ohio follow suit. For school leaders and parents, the loss of learning time should be causing a lot of heartburn. What to do to get kids back on track?
One possibility is to ditch the traditional summer break and replace it with some type of instruction. Prominent education advocates and several districts in other states have started to consider such a possibility. Furthermore, the $489 million dollars headed to Ohio’s K–12 schools via the federal stimulus package explicitly allows funds to be used for summer instruction.
It goes without saying that if it’s unsafe to reopen schools, then state leaders should keep them closed. As a recent piece in The Atlantic points out, it’s important for folks to recognize that “snapping back to business as usual” rather than slowly and judiciously easing restrictions “could be catastrophic.” Governor DeWine recently noted that we must be “deliberate, careful and thoughtful” about getting things back to normal. Even if schools do reopen soon, a typical school day may look very different and might require social distancing measures. The health and safety of students should always be our primary concern.
But if there’s one thing that the past few weeks have made clear, it’s that we must be ready to adapt to any situation. It’s important for state leaders to be prepared for all possibilities, and that includes reopening schools and addressing learning loss. With that thought in mind, here are three summer school options that local leaders could consider, along with their pros and cons.
Option 1: Extend the 2019–20 school year into the summer months
If by some miracle Ohio sees a drastic and consistent drop in new COVID-19 cases over the next two weeks, and health officials give DeWine the all clear, it’s possible (but not probable) he could allow schools to reopen for the remainder of the year. If they do reopen, many of them will have a month or two of instructional time remaining before their scheduled summer breaks. Since they’ll be up and running already, they could choose to add another month to the end of the year. For example, instead of Columbus City Schools closing its doors on May 28, it could extend the school year for another month and offer instruction through June 26.
Such a decision would likely have to be made at the local level. The governor could use the bully pulpit to call for schools to stay open, but he likely can’t force them to do so. Obviously, the primary benefit of having schools stay open into the summer months would be extra instructional time. Teachers and staff would have an opportunity to remediate learning losses that occurred during the closures and prevent an unprecedented summer slide. They could offer enrichment for students who are on track or ahead. And the extra time would give schools an opportunity to gather data that could help them plan more efficiently and effectively for the fall.
But the complexities of this option are significant. For starters, it’s doubtful that schools will get the all clear to safely reopen so soon. There’s also a significant amount of funding issues. Keeping schools open and running for an extra month will take money. Schools haven’t technically been out of session for the past month. The governor closed their physical locations, but they were ordered to continue providing some type of instruction. That means that, although teachers have been working in different ways over the last few weeks, they have indeed still been working and getting paid. Any money districts “saved” in operational costs is unlikely to be much. In addition, teachers unions have been clear that one of their primary concerns surrounding summer school is amending this year’s collective bargaining agreements to accommodate the additional hours. Such negotiations can drag on for months, and may make a quick turnaround impossible.
There are also additional costs to consider. Earlier this year, schools in Columbus closed when high temperatures and a lack of air conditioning made conditions inside schools unbearable. Extending the school year into June might require some schools to spend a considerable amount of money to purchase or update air conditioning systems and run them consistently.
Overall, given the current state of the economy and the impending budget crunch, adding another month to the 2019–20 school year is highly unlikely.
Option 2: End the 2019–20 school year on May 1, and bring schools back a month early
Governor Mike DeWine could give Ohio schools the option to close—not just physically but operationally—on May 1 under the condition that they reopen a month early for the 2020–21 school year. For example, rather than opening on August 24, Cincinnati Public Schools could open its doors around July 27. The benefits of this are similar to what was discussed above: making up for lost instructional time, an opportunity to provide remediation, and extra time to gauge where students are and adjust curricula and instruction accordingly.
Starting the next school year early, rather than dragging out the current year, could ease some of the concerns around collective bargaining and staffing. If districts end the 2019–20 school year early—an actual closure, with no distance learning—teachers and staff would still get a break. They would end up working the same amount of time overall, just on a different type of calendar. This would also give districts and unions far more time to negotiate any needed changes to employee contracts. Additionally, an early end to this challenging school year could allay concerns brought about the quick pivot to distance learning. For every charter school, STEM school, or district whose previous experience or extensive planning allowed for a smooth transition, there are many who struggled for weeks with ramping up meaningful learning opportunities. Not to mention the concerns of special needs families.
But many of the logistical problems remain. As was the case with extending the current year, the governor can’t order schools to do this. It would be a local decision, and it would take a lot of work to get districts and unions to reach agreements by August. Contracts for food services, transportation, and other necessities would need to be adjusted. Some schools will still need to solve the air conditioning problem. And many curricula and instructional materials are designed for a nine-month year, not a ten-month one. Schools would need to get creative and come up with an extra month of learning materials that will address the remediation needs of students.
The upshot? This is a far better option than extending the current school year, as it solves some of the financial barriers. But it will still take a lot of work to pull it off.
Option 3: Offer summer school to students who choose to enroll
The third and final option is to offer beefed-up summer school. Unlike current versions, which are typically reserved for a small percentage of students, this new version would be available to any student who wishes to enroll. Schools could hold a brief enrollment period in the waning days of May, and then get schools up and running for the summer months.
Unlike the previous two options, which are extensions of an actual school year, focusing on summer school programs would sidestep some logistical difficulties. For instance, most schools already have summer programs and procedures in place. That means collective bargaining, contracts for food service and transportation, and other logistical details have already been negotiated. Obviously additional negotiations and adjustments will need to take place, since this version of summer school will be much bigger and broader than previous years. But such adjustments will be occurring from already-in-place plans rather than from scratch.
Another benefit of offering summer school rather than extending the traditional year is that districts could be strategic about which buildings they open. Even if they provide a summer school option to all their students, it’s unlikely that all of them will enroll. Once district leaders know how many students to expect and where they live, they can select centralized locations to offer programming, much like they did with food services during coronavirus closures. School leaders could also leverage philanthropies and nonprofits the same way they do during traditional summer school timelines. Science centers, zoos, and museums that have been closed for weeks could get back in gear by teaming up with schools to offer programming. This type of community involvement is clearly aligned with the #InThisTogetherOhio mentality encouraged by state leaders over these last few weeks. And with many traditional summer camps and recreation center programs likely to be cancelled or scaled back, parents will be looking for productive ways for their kids to occupy themselves.
But there are some drawbacks, too. Offering summer school to students who choose to enroll, rather than mandating it for everyone, could result in thousands of kids falling through the cracks. Districts would need to be very intentional about making sure disadvantaged and at-risk students are aware of the opportunity and have every chance to enroll. Some districts may also struggle to find enough teachers and staff to work through the summer. Overall, though, this seems like the least disruptive option.
When it comes to addressing learning loss brought about by the coronavirus, summer school is a solid option. It takes advantage of time that students traditionally have off, can be partially funded through the federal stimulus package, and could give schools a head start on remediation efforts in the fall. But along with these benefits, each implementation option has some downsides. Ohio leaders should carefully consider the pros and cons of each opportunity before deciding on the path that’s best for Ohio’s students.