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The pandemic made summer learning loss worse, but research shows there’s a way to slow it

A student attends summer classes at E.N. White School in Holyoke, Mass. In a new survey of school superintendents, 75% of respondents said they were using federal COVID-19 relief dollars to pay for summer learning and other enrichment activities.
A student attends summer classes at E.N. White School in Holyoke, Mass. In a new survey of school superintendents, 75% of respondents said they were using federal COVID-19 relief dollars to pay for summer learning and other enrichment activities.

Summer learning loss has always been a problem for school children, especially low-income kids with few resources. Losses increased in the pandemic, as face-to-face teaching stopped for months.

The nonprofit Dallas City of Learning has worked with Big Thought, Dallas ISD and SMU’s Center of Research and Evaluation to start, then study, summer programs designed to thwart learning loss. That happens when students are away from teachers for months.

Dylan Farmer is Assistant Director of Strategic Partnerships at SMU’s Center on Research and Evaluation. She says the organization’s 30-day summer programs have been in place since 2014. They had to change things up in 2020, she said, when virtual learning became the status quo. But classes changed again last summer, after in-person learning returned for many students.

“We found that one summer is good, two summers is better and that these programs mattered the most for the kids who needed them the most,” Farmer said.

Do summer programs work?

The number of summer participants has spiked since the pandemic began, Farmer said. It was up 124% from the first pandemic summer to the last, in 2021.

“Preliminary evidence demonstrates that students attending summer programs during summer 2020 and summer 2021 started school in fall of 2020 and/or fall of ‘21 with stronger course performance and that this was consistently true for elementary school, middle school and high school students.”

The conclusion so far: these summer programs make a real difference, especially now.

A study looking at how the pandemic has hampered learning shows students of color took the biggest hit. A McKinsey Report suggests they could be six to 12 months behind compared to four to eight months for white students.

Got a tip? Email Reporter Bill Zeeble at bzeeble@kera.org . You can follow him on Twitter @bzeeble.

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Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.