Four Things NYC Can Do Now to Help Kids Come Back to Learning in the Summer

Since starting my blog on the challenges of one kid in this COVID year, I have heard many stories from other families.

A teenager began ideating suicide; their family looked into a residential program to help.

A former straight-A tween was struggling so much in classes that their family pulled them out of public school and into a private school.

For another couple, challenges in school led eventually to divorce.

And as hard as it is for these friends, their solutions speak to the inequity of possibility: solutions that involve transferring to a private school or moving out of a shared home are beyond reach for the vast majority of families in our country where 43 percent of kids live at or near poverty. As a recent article in Chalkbeat said of lessons learned from one year of COVID in schools: online schooling has exacerbated inequalities and isolation, pushed families out of the workforce, and left many reeling, and yet transformation is possible.

The $1.9 trillion rescue package from the Biden Administration is a hugely hopeful development, but big challenges remain for the summer. The Annenberg Institute and Learning Policy Institute offer thoughtful prescriptions: extend and expand learning in the summer, build out tutoring and teaching, attend to social-emotional needs, all while making school building safe.

Here in New York, the district will be unveiling its summer plan soon. Here are four things I hope will be in there:

1. FAMILY VOICE: Ask children and families what will get them to come back. I am excited a plan is soon to be unveiled, but worried too. An “unveiling” has an air of presentation, not conversation. I hope what is unveiled includes a plan right away to ask children and families to identify what they feel they need this summer. They are most likely begging for extracurriculars or social connection they have been missing, and their families may very well be struggling financially.

Just by genuinely asking families, the City would begin to engage them. By then pouring recovery funds into helping organizations that provide the resources or enrichment activities that families ask for, so that these organizations can right away hire, vaccinate, and train staff in the spring, we have a key first step to engaging for the summer.

2. HUMANIZED HELP: Build and train teams to support social workers and counselors. While learning loss is real, millions of students have not only lost learning but lost hope and direction. Estimates that 3 million disappeared from school or that students in low-income families have had 15% drops in attendance are frightening. And these numbers come from the fall; the winter has, if anything, made them worse.

Students who are feeling isolated and lost need to connect with adults who know how to show they care. We can do this, but only if we think outside the school walls first: New York has great community-school partners who can train a temporary corps of summer workers to reach out to youth in their own communities and get them information and motivation to reconnect with school this summer. This same corps can then assist social workers and counselors to be ready for students returning to school buildings, so that those social workers and counselors can spend more of their time with youth.

3. ACADEMIC PLANNING: Match tutors with engaging teaching to address learning loss. This summer needs an influx of tutors and engaging activities to reach and help all the students who need it, but just throwing tutors into school buildings will get poor results. We need coordinated and constructive re-engagement. Research on tutoring tells us the core principles for what will make it work: integration with schools, daily connection with highly personalized connections, a strong curriculum and ways to assess progress.

To do this well, tutors need to be identified in the spring so that they can be matched with groups of schools using the same curricula, and then with summer teachers so that they are part of a team working together to help students meet high expectations.

4. ENGAGEMENT OF ALL NEW YORKERS: Ask philanthropy and well-off New Yorkers to support the influx of summer support. Across New York, many people are reeling from the pandemic. But many are not. New York is simultaneously home to the poorest and richest neighborhoods in our country.

A plan from the school district should be coordinated with a plan from philanthropy and the mayor to make it as easy as possible for employers who are not suffering financially during the pandemic to provide help to New Yorkers. Employers can provide resources to summer programs and school sites to match the needs of families. They can give release time for staff to have some weeks or hours off during the summer to help out. While employers might be good citizens and do this on their own, some leadership and positive peer pressure from politicians and major employers across the City would go a long way.

Founder of Eskolta School Research & Design. Education reformer, husband & father living in New York City.