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Federal Q&A

To Help Traumatized Students This Summer, Let Them Play, Sen. Chris Murphy Says in Q&A

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 17, 2021 8 min read
02172021 Chris Murphy

In helping kids overcome the academic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, don’t devalue recreation and enrichment for children once this school year ends.

That’s an emerging argument from Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. A member of the Senate education committee, Murphy says that while he doesn’t want to dismiss concerns about lost learning time and what children need to catch up on academically, that doesn’t capture the entirety of what’s happened to students. Many who have been affected mentally and emotionally by school closures and other effects of COVID-19 need summer programs provided by organizations like the YMCA, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and local parks and recreation departments, he says. That will help them recover in ways that sitting in classrooms during the summer months simply won’t.

To that end, he’s pushing for dedicated federal funding for summer enrichment and recreation programs in the next round of congressional coronavirus relief.

In this Q&A, which has been edited for length and clarity, we also talked with Murphy about whether the U.S. Department of Education should grant waivers from standardized testing, and his view of how the Biden administration has addressed reopening schools nearly a month after the president’s inauguration.

Obviously schools and students are facing so many challenges nearly a year into the pandemic. Why have you put a particular emphasis on summer enrichment and learning activities amid these different concerns related to health, safety, and other things?

It is a potential major gap for kids in the upcoming year. We have already passed funding to support K-12, and we expect to pass additional funding next month. Over the next 16 months, one quarter of kids’ time is going to be spent during summer recess. As a parent, I understand that I’ve got to be looking out for my kid 12 months of the year, not nine or 10 months of the year. And Congress has to think of it the same way. It’s not good enough for us to spend billions of dollars on kids’ needs if none of that money ends up helping them this summer.

And I look at this summer as a tremendous opportunity. Our hope is that next school year will be as back to normal as possible. And so this summer is really a moment to emotionally and psychologically reset kids. There’s been so much trauma and so much pain and so much dislocation over the last year. This summer, when we think we’ll be able to get kids back together in outdoor settings, is a moment when we can really give kids something that gets them ready to be back in the classroom and learn.

This summer is really a moment to emotionally and psychologically reset kids. There’s been so much trauma and so much pain and so much dislocation over the last year.

My fear is that if you give all the money to the school systems without any dedicated money for summer programming, all that will happen is that kids will be put in summer school. And that’s not what every kid needs. In fact I would argue that’s not what most kids need this summer. Most kids need social reengagement this summer, and that doesn’t always come through summer school programming.

Some might say, given what’s happened, maybe summer programs that are coming up should look different, and they should focus more on academics, since that’s the primary concern heading into the school year. Can you expand on that a bit more as to why you think it might be harmful maybe for summer programs to focus too much on academics?

I think we have to listen to kids, and listen to parents. I think it’s hard to comprehend how difficult this last year has been and how difficult learning has been for kids that have been forced into the classroom, out of the classroom, back into the classroom, back out again. Their learning will be much more effective next year if they have a fun, rewarding, and empowering summer experience.

On paper, it makes all the sense in the world to put kids in school for June, July, and August. But, I’m going to tell you, it will not be good for kids if all of them are forced to sort of sit at home on their computer or sit in hot classroom spaces all summer.
Again, I think we should have flexibility here. I’m not saying every kid should be in a summer camp with no academics this summer. I was just in Middletown, Conn., sitting down with all the summer program service providers, and they’re talking about integrated programs, with the school system and the [YMCA] where the school system would come in and do some light academic programming during a day that would mostly be spent just messing around outside.

How structured does it need to be in your mind for many kids? Could it just be free play in many instances?

Summer camp is pretty structured. Good summer camps, good-quality recreational programs, have a lot of structure. I think there’s a real opportunity to build in some academics into summer camp programming. We should give states and localities the opportunity to build hybrid programs for kids this summer. If you didn’t have dedicated money for summer programming, I’m not sure that opportunity would exist, because the money would have to run through the school system. You’d end up with something that was mostly academic.

When people talk about different programs like tutoring or dramatically scaling up summer school, one of the concerns that comes up is that you provide a lot of federal money for programs that aren’t ready to go, there are fears that programs might be put together haphazardly, they won’t rely on well-trained people, and they might be executed in ways that help students. Is that a concern you would have here, that just providing a big infusion [of funding] for summer activities and enrichment might not be effective?

I think the risk is less when it comes to summer programming. We already have a lot of summer programming. What you’d likely be talking about is not standing up new programs out of whole cloth, but asking existing quality providers to expand the number of slots they offer. That’s why there’s a real advantage.

It will not be good for kids if all of them are forced to sort of sit at home on their computer or sit in hot classroom spaces all summer.

If you get the money authorized for summer programming early enough, you can go as a municipality or a state to your quality summer providers and ask them to expand the number of affordable slots in exchange for this investment. I think that’s one of the advantages of doing it this way.

As you might be aware, your colleagues in the House are advancing a bill under the reconciliation process that says, among other things, that roughly 25 percent of the money for K-12 education has to go to things like summer schools, or extended learning, things like that that are pretty strictly academically focused. It sounds like maybe you’re indicating that’s not the best approach. What’s your take on that proposal?

I think we have to be very cognizant of where kids are right now. There’s been learning loss. But you cannot catch kids up on learning if they are emotionally and psychologically drained. So you’ve got to focus on getting kids in a place where they can commit themselves to catching up on learning. I’m really hyper-focused on kids’ emotional and mental health needs right now. I think that requires us spending money in a really purposeful way.

If a parent in Connecticut came up to you and said, “Senator Murphy, I don’t want my child to have to go into school during a pandemic to take a state standardized test, and it doesn’t make much sense to me for my child to take that test sitting at home on a laptop,” what would you tell that parent in response?

Well, I guess I’d ask them some follow-up questions to ask them what their particular concerns are. … I think that it’d be a mistake to withdraw our commitment to assessment and accountability. I think especially for disabled students, and low-income students, and students of color, it’s really important for us to know how kids are doing. We have to understand that the assessments are of much more limited utility this year than they were in prior years. We should be very open to a conversation about adjusting accountability systems. I don’t think you want to just have a year gap in assessments. You want to be able to compare 2018-19 to 2019-20 to 2020-21. … States should be thinking about ways to provide much more flexibility in their accountability systems, while still moving forward on assessments.

There’s been learning loss. But you cannot catch kids up on learning if they are emotionally and psychologically drained.

I also think we have a lot of work to do to make assessments more meaningful. I still don’t think we have culturally competent assessments. I still think we are far too obsessed with assessing reading, writing, and math, as opposed to social-emotional skills. But I think we need to be walking and chewing gum at the same time. I would advise us to continue to do assessments while we’re talking about how to make assessments better.

My last question: I’m just wondering if you have any general or specific reactions to what the Biden administration has done so far when it comes to school reopening. I’m particularly interested if you have any thoughts on the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Preventionthat was just released, whether you think it’s too cautious or too ambitious or maybe strikes the right balance between competing interests.

I think that they have largely gotten it right. ... In Connecticut, we’ve been struggling with this for a year. We’ve got most of our schools open. We still have a lot of families that are choosing to learn from home. We’re going to pay attention to the CDC guidance. But we also have kind of gotten into a groove here. And I think that’s the same thing for most states. While the CDC guidance is really helpful and impactful, I don’t know that a lot of states are doing a lot of 90-degree turns.

We’ve still got four months left in this school year. But we’re at the point in most school districts where they’ve basically made their decisions about what school’s going to look like until May or June.

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