Student Achievement What the Research Says

5 Things to Know About How the Pandemic Has Deepened Summer Learning Loss

By Sarah D. Sparks — July 12, 2022 5 min read
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This summer could be a make-or-break period for students working to regain academic ground lost during the disruptions of the last few years.

Even before the pandemic, educators long had to battle against so-called “summer slide,” as students forget part of what they learned during the previous year during class breaks. In fact, studies of summer slide provided some of the first warnings of how school closures could hurt student progress during the early months of the pandemic. But research also shows that summer slide and the learning loss caused by academic disruptions differ in ways that can exacerbate each other. As student needs evolve, studies suggest how both independent and school-based summer programs can adapt to provide better academic and social-emotional support.

“Prior to the pandemic, summer learning programs were largely designed to provide academic support for students who were failing or at risk of failing,” the Education Development Center, a research and development nonprofit, found in a new study of summer learning programs. “However, as a result of the pandemic, summer learning stakeholders recognize the need for a focus on whole-child learning (social, emotional, cognitive, and academic development, as well as their physical and mental health).”

Based on the research, here are five things school and district leaders should know about how summer slide and COVID slide affect each other, and how schools can structure summer programs to help students accelerate their learning.

1. Each type of “slide” can make the other steeper.

A study presented during the National Council on Measurement in Education (NCME) Virtual Annual Meeting in 2021 compared the summer slide, a COVID-19 slide, and students’ performance in reading and math across the United States before and during the pandemic using growth-based assessments. In reading, students experienced a summer slide for some grades, but all students experienced a COVID-19 slide in 2020-21. In math, all students across grades experienced a summer slide as well as a COVID-19 slide. Students lost their math ability more rapidly than their reading ability, and the magnitude was larger in the upper elementary grades.

Those results may align with earlier studies of summer learning loss, which find that it can hit students harder as they enter middle school. What students forget from the school year, once they are grappling with complex work, can be more damaging the following year.

2. COVID hit summer school, too.

Summer programs have been as upended—and in some cases even more—than regular school year classes have been during the pandemic. In its study of summer programs in 38 districts across 30 states, the EDC found that most districts were unable to offer summer programs at all during 2020, due to in-person health restrictions and limited virtual capacity. District leaders reported that it took “blood, sweat, and tears” to put on summer programs at even a fifth of their normal size. While federal and state recovery funding supported summer programs in 2021, the EDC found many districts did not have sufficient time and staff to plan for comprehensive summer programs.

That means many students have had less access than usual to school-based summer programs at a time when external camps, museums, and other activities have also been more limited. This deepened the disparity in access to summer enrichment between students living in poverty and wealthier students. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics suggest low-income students were half as likely to have access to museums and galleries and more than 30 percentage points less likely to attend a day camp than students who were not poor.

Experts recommend schools and community groups partner to create portfolios of academic programs, sports organizations, camps, and cultural resources to ensure students stay engaged during summer months.

3. Instructional time matters.

A RAND Corp. study of 43 summer programs that were highly effective at helping students combat summer learning loss, determined that they should run at least five weeks and include three hours or more of instructional time each day.

However, last summer, the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that of 80 large urban districts planning to use pandemic recovery money for summer programs, less than half had scheduled programs that were long enough to give the most effective instructional time. While more than 70 percent of the programs offered both reading and math instruction, the center found only 45 percent provided bridge programs to help students connect their summer learning back to the school year come fall.

4. Students seriously need to relax.

School-based summer programs typically focus on academic remediation and enrichment, and the White House has recently urged districts to spend part of their pandemic recovery funding on summer programs as a means to close academic gaps. But studies suggest school disruptions, unlike normal summer breaks, can hurt students’ mental health. The ongoing pandemic-related stress may worsen learning loss, and summer programs may need more explicit social-emotional supports for students.

Part of the difference between “good” stress that motivates a student to perform well, and “toxic” stress that can lead to mental and physical health problems, is whether a student feels otherwise stable and able to control and limit the source of stress. For many children, the pandemic has caused ongoing stresses outside of their control, such as financial instability, reduced social and educational engagement, and health or family anxiety. These compound each other and interfere with neurological development. Chronic stress could hinder memory and learning, even once students are back in regular classes, putting them at more risk of forgetting over the break.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning recommends that programs build in opportunities for students to connect socially to each other and the school and continue mental and social-emotional supports (such as counseling services) during the summer to students who need them.

5. Summer programs need teacher prep, too.

The EDC also found that district staffing issues remain one of the biggest challenges to improving school-based summer programs. District leaders reported that they “tend to rely on their own educators to staff their summer programs, and due to the COVID-19 crisis, educators were fatigued and unlikely to be as willing to work in summer programs as they might have been in past years.”

The study noted that few districts provide summer-specific training and support.

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