It’s the summer, sunshine

If the Biden administration’s COVID-19 relief package passes with funding for K-12 summer school, we’ll see a great deal of things more clearly as a result. How much are parents worried about the academics their children have missed, as opposed to all the other roles of schools? How much have teachers been stressed to the point of quitting/disengaging when they can? How much can schools operate in-person smoothly if the staff are vaccinated but the students aren’t?

As I write, it’s a month after Biden’s inauguration, a week after the first Biden-era CDC guidance on school operations. It is also the time of year that for several decades, parents of school-aged children have started to scramble to find summer placements: camps, part- and full-day child care, etc. In contrast with the academic year, summer placements are much more clearly about all the non-academic roles that schools fill and the wide gap they leave when closed. But the arguments floating around the ether about summer school this year are all about the academics: the learning that children have missed in the pandemic, and how to help them catch up. While Dana Goldstein and Kate Taylor’s article in the New York Times earlier in February explained the complications of trying to expand summer programs, they correctly reflect the arguments about academics.

What would a federally-funded summer school show?

First, summer school operations could be an early test of how individual districts might pivot mostly away from remote instruction by the start of the next academic year. At the moment, the Biden administration is pushing hard to make vaccinations available to all adults by early summer, and whether or not teachers and other school staff are prioritized in the next month or two, it is very likely that the bulk of school employees will have at least one vaccination dose by the end of the year this spring. Thus far, every approved vaccine has a clinical record of no hospitalizations and no deaths from COVID. This is great! But only one vaccine approved for emergency use is authorized for minors (Pfizer), and only for 16- and 17-year-olds. It will take a few additional seasons for the clinical trials to extend approvals downwards in age, which would leave staff vaccinated, but not most children.

This will change the relationships between schools and families once again. My guess is that barring a change in the risk of severe COVID illness for children, the majority of parents will be satisfied sending their children to school full-time by summer, if summer school is available. How will schools respond if that is the case? And what about the families who still need and/or request remote instruction: will those children be allowed to attend some form of a summer program remotely?

Summer school operations will also be a test of whether schools can focus on an academic curriculum in the summer, and how much parents want that. Right now, hundreds of thousands of teachers are stretched by a combination of risk, distance from students, demands to teach students both remotely and in-person, and the stresses within their own households. Will academic subject teachers sign up to teach summer school? My guess is that depending on the relationship between teachers and individual districts, the majority very well might, from a combination of wanting to serve their students and the desire for income. But a lot hangs on what Tony Bryk and Barbara Schneider called relational trust, or the organizational resources that came from interpersonal connections within individual schools as well as districts.1 How much is left at the end of the pandemic?

But will it matter much if academic subject teachers mostly decline to teach in summer, and schools offer a form of tepid mass tutoring, or mostly non-academic services? A good part of parental angst with remote teaching is all about the non-academic roles of schools: child care, peer relationships, socialization, connection with even a fictional version of community. A school offers a bundle of things, not a set of a la carte services. From that angle, it may not be all that important that certified teachers be the ones staffing summer school. The more parents value the non-academic (or non-standard-academic) role of schools, the more they’ll reinforce significant parts of the grammar of schooling, and schools as a bundled institution. Valuing peer relationships implies acceptance of the age-graded school. Appreciating the child care role of schools will reinforce not only the existence of in-person schooling itself but also the before- and after-school care connections that schools can provide and that organize themselves around schooling, from aftercare to extracurricular activities.

While arguments about “learning loss” may be driving various proposals around summer schooling, that may be irrelevant to the resumption of in-person schooling. While everyone cares about learning, parents are being driven to distraction/concern for all sorts of reasons. The benefits of summer school from a parental perspective may extend well beyond academics, and the reinforcement of the grammar of schooling may come quickly with larger-than-normal summer school operations.


  1. Translation: if a school has never consistently had soap in its bathrooms, teachers are going to trust the district very little in terms of pandemic precautions. []