School & District Management

Summer School Is More Important Than Ever. But Teachers Are ‘Fried’ and Need a Break

By Madeline Will — April 26, 2021 8 min read
Image of an exhausted teacher sitting at the bottom of a battery showing low charge.

This summer will be crucial for catching up students who have fallen behind due to the pandemic and school closures, experts say. Districts are bolstering their summer learning offerings, and the federal government has given more than a billion dollars to help them do so.

But there’s one big problem: Teachers are burned out and exhausted from a year of pandemic teaching. And many are saying thanks but no thanks to the offer of teaching summer school.

“I’m really tired,” said Laura McFarren, an 8th grade social studies teacher in Derby, Kan. “When [COVID-19] happened last spring, I jumped in with both feet and helped keep our district afloat. … It’s just been draining.”

She spent last summer helping plan her district’s return to school, as well as taking multiple professional development courses to make sure she’d be ready for the school year. But this year, when McFarren got an email from her district asking about her interest in teaching summer school, she knew she had to say no: “We’ve all earned our summer break.”

Across the nation, teacher morale has plummeted over the course of the pandemic, EdWeek Research Center surveys show, as teachers have been asked to take on new, demanding roles while trying to attend to students who are disengaged or traumatized from living through a pandemic and economic downturn. An EdWeek survey conducted in early April found that 76 percent of educators say that teacher morale is lower now than it was prior to the pandemic.

Yet district leaders say they need more teachers to sign up to work over the summer than they usually do to accommodate all the students who need extra support. In the past, summer school has mostly meant remedial work for students who have failed a class or lack the required credits to graduate from high school. But now, districts want to use their summer programming to help make up for lost instructional time. Many are targeting young learners who struggled to master reading during remote instruction, as well as students who are at key transition points in their schooling and those from low-income families.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has urged districts to also prioritize students’ social and emotional well-being this summer, adding that they should pay special attention to students from underserved communities. More than $1.2 billion of the federal relief money for schools has been earmarked for evidence-based summer learning and enrichment programs. Some districts are using that money to increase teachers’ hourly pay, in an effort to incentivize more of their workforce to get on board.

“Summer school is going to be essential to closing the gaps that we’re seeing with our kids,” said Jennifer Blaine, the superintendent of the Spring Branch district in Houston. “In order to bridge those gaps, we need our very best teachers in the classroom. But our teachers are tired, and the work’s going to be tough.”

To help sweeten the deal for teachers in Spring Branch, the board of trustees approved a 20 percent pay raise. Teachers will be paid $30 an hour, up from $25. (Lead teachers will be paid $35 an hour, up from $30.)

Since announcing the pay raise this month, the 35,000-student district has been able to recruit about 50 additional teachers, Blaine said. The district is still identifying students for summer courses so it doesn’t yet know how many teachers in total will be needed—but the expected demand is so high that any teacher who is interested will be hired.

Teachers may have to address big gaps this summer

Even though most students in Spring Branch have been learning on campus all year, Blaine said some of them are still making up for the learning they lost when schools initially shut down last spring. And many of the youngest elementary students who stayed online for some or all of this school year are behind in reading, she said.

The Anderson, S.C., school district, which has also offered in-person instruction all year, is projecting that more than a third of its rising 1st graders will be behind in reading. Superintendent Thomas Wilson is also concerned about rising 6th graders, especially those who have remained at home this school year and were last in a classroom in 4th grade. And many of the high school students who were already struggling before the pandemic have checked out this year and are not on track to graduate.

For those students, summer school will be crucial, Wilson said. But teaching it was a hard sell this year, given the taxing schedule.

Typically, the school year starts in mid-August and ends in May. But this year, the first day was Sept. 8 to give the district more time to prepare to have students back in person. That late start means teachers aren’t done with this school year until June 17—and summer school starts on June 21. There will be two three-week sessions, and then it will be time to start planning for the next school year.

Teachers initially balked at the thought of having virtually no summer vacation. But once the district used federal funding to double the hourly pay—from $30 an hour to $60—there was about a 50 percent increase in applicants, Wilson said. If teachers work both sessions, they can make $10,000, he said. (An early-career teacher in the district makes around $40,000.)

“We desperately wanted to have a robust summer school, and with this money, [we’re able to] make it so attractive financially that we’ll have the teachers that we want,” Wilson said.

The district will also have some of its incoming new teachers, who are graduating from college in May, teach summer school. That’ll be a win-win, Wilson said: They’ll be able to make some money before starting their full-time jobs, and they’ll have some experience under their belts when they walk into classrooms this fall.

In addition to raising teachers’ hourly pay for the summer from $25 to $35, the Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated school district in Starkville, Miss., is also capping class sizes at 10 students in an attempt to recruit more teachers. Before those changes, only 56 teachers—about 7 percent of the 5,000-student district’s workforce—expressed interest in teaching a summer enrichment course.

“Teachers are just worn out,” said Brandi Burton, the director of educational enhancement and innovative research at the district. “I really think they are looking forward to this summer break like they never have before.”

But the smaller class sizes and higher pay have increased interest, she said. And teachers are encouraged to teach a session about something they’re passionate about—for example, some of the planned enrichment experiences this summer include courses in unmanned aviation, makerspaces, writing, gardening, and nutrition. All enrichment experiences will be tied to a core curriculum subject.

“We want to offer as many diverse opportunities as possible to enrich different pockets of students,” Burton said, adding that after a year in which learning was disrupted periodically due to quarantine requirements, “it’s just important to provide some type of consistent learning without the summer break so students can remain engaged.”

Teachers ‘feel like they’ve been working nonstop’

Due to staffing shortages, some districts are putting students on wait lists or foregoing summer programming altogether.

In Salem, Ohio, Superintendent Sean Kirkland realized he did not have the necessary staff for the summer learning programs his principals wanted to offer, such as weeklong boot camps and targeted interventions. Instead, the 2,000-student district will focus on catching up students next school year and will use its federal relief money to hire additional teachers, paraprofessionals, and interventionists.

Teachers “need a break, and kids need a break,” Kirkland said. “We’re going to use that funding to concentrate on closing those gaps throughout the school year.”

In North Carolina, however, districts are required to offer a six-week, in-person summer school program to students who are at risk of failing. The new law offers at least a $1,200 bonus for any highly effective teacher who signs up to teach summer school, and for 3rd grade teachers, at least a $150 bonus for every student they work with who goes on to pass the reading exam.

Still, Bryan Proffitt, the vice president of the N.C. Association of Educators, the state affiliate of the National Education Association, said he hopes districts also make sure their teachers have at least some time off over the summer, in addition to compensating them well. Otherwise, he said, teachers may burn out and ultimately leave the profession.

“My sense is that most of our people feel like they’ve been working nonstop since August 2019,” he said. “We’re not accounting for how hard [this school year] has been on folks.”

Proffitt also cautioned against the narrative of widespread learning loss, saying that students have learned many new things this year, including computer skills and resilience.

One recent study found that students still made progress in reading and math this school year, although there is still a gap between where students’ test scores are now and where they would have been in a normal year. That gap was more pronounced for Black, Hispanic, and Native American students, as well as for English-language learners and students with disabilities.

Teachers have been working overtime to help keep students on track during a generation-defining pandemic, said Jay Wamsted, a middle school math teacher in Atlanta, adding there’s too much of a focus on learning loss. “If all of society is losing something, isn’t that relative?” he said.

Last month, he tweeted that districts “won’t be able to raise pay high enough to find teachers willing to work summer school this year.” One teacher replied to Wamsted that this will be the first time in 18 years that she’s not working this summer.

“Everybody,” he said, “is fried around the edges.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2021 edition of Education Week as Summer School Is More Important Than Ever. But Teachers Are ‘Fried’ and Need a Break

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