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‘Step one of our recovery efforts’: Baltimore-area systems look to summer school to begin repairing academic losses from pandemic

Baltimore-area school systems are greatly expanding summer school programs to offset the disruption to learning caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but officials caution it could take years to fully counter the long-term impact on students.

An influx of tens of millions of federal COVID-19 recovery dollars is helping to pay for the increased costs of summer school. Some systems are trying to double the number of seats for students this summer.

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School officials say the summer programs will target a wide range of student needs, including boosting social and emotional well-being, providing academic support and mitigating the usual summer learning loss.

“In a lot of ways, summer is step one of our recovery efforts,” said Lara Ohanian, who oversees summer programs for Baltimore City schools. “What I really want is for families, kids and teachers to see summer as the beginning of next year, the start of normalcy. I think people are exhausted now, and I want summer to be a jump-start to be happy and excited again.”

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To staff expanded summer programs, school systems are having to pay teachers more after a challenging year of pandemic education. In Baltimore, the teachers union is negotiating with the system to get wages bumped up to a daily rate akin to what teachers would earn during the school year.

“The district is committed to providing an increase from what teachers were paid last summer” while balancing other needs, the school system said in a statement.

Caroline Walker, who oversees summer programs in Howard County, said her system had hoped to double its offerings but expects to scale back that plan because it doesn’t have enough teachers.

“It will be significantly expanded, but maybe as not as much as I would like,” Walker said. “We still need to find more staff.”

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Howard has offered better pay and a $1,000 bonus for some teachers as an incentive.

Educators acknowledge that summer programs are not a panacea for the pandemic’s negative impacts on learning. Still, they hope the offerings will help many kids take the first step of getting reacquainted with classrooms.

In the Baltimore region, only about half of students have returned to schools for in-person classes, and the state remains 46th in the nation for the percentage of its students back in classrooms as the school year ends, according to Burbio Inc., a company tracking school returns.

Teachers have reported many students did not engage in learning online either because they didn’t have reliable internet or couldn’t learn well outside a classroom. As a result, failing grades doubled and sometimes tripled in school systems across the state.

Maryland’s General Assembly passed legislation in April requiring systems to establish summer school programs to address the effects of the pandemic. The law also requires schools to assess each student at the beginning and conclusion of the summer program.

Carroll County school administrators plan to closely analyze this data over the next year to determine whether there was a “return on investment” for their newly created summer school program, said chief academic officer Jason Anderson. The system has not offered a traditional summer school option in recent years.

Carroll’s schools saw six times more failing grades in the fall semester compared to the same period a year earlier. The number of failing grades diminished as the rural school system brought students back to classrooms later in the school year, Anderson said.

About 2,600 students in Carroll’s general education track have signed up for the summer learning program.

In the city, summer school should help alleviate some of the learning gaps left by the pandemic, said Ohanian, but the summer programs aren’t intended to close all those gaps.

Baltimore will offer slots for 16,000 students — up from 9,000 before the pandemic — for six weeks this summer.

Ohanian said about 100 schools will have summer offerings, everything from courses for elementary students who need a mix of academics and enrichment classes to middle and high school students who need to make up credits. Some programs will offer the arts, including an Alvin Ailey Dance Camp at Towson University.

The city will first focus on students whose teachers feel they need extra help, particularly seniors and high school students who need to catch up. The school system will run intensive three-week sessions for those seniors so they can gather enough credits to graduate.

Beyond the system’s efforts, local foundations and city money have provided $3 million to give about 10,000 more children academic and enrichment activities this summer.

Across systems, educators are hoping to reintroduce school to students who have been at home for more than a year. Many students had little interactions with their classmates and teachers. Some students turned off their laptop cameras during class and the teachers couldn’t see them.

“If you are used to not having the attention on you … you are suddenly in school and teachers are right there and seeing what you are doing,” said Howard County’s Walker. “It is going to be reawakening for some students.”

Younger children will have to learn to take turns and to sit at a desk. Some rising seventh graders and rising 10th graders have never been inside their middle or high schools. Summer school can help students make those adjustments.

“Relearning the habits of being a student is a very important part of education, too,” said Walker.

In addition to in-person camps and summer schools, many systems are offering online courses for families who want them.

Baltimore County’s summer school option will look similar to what the system has planned for the fall — a choice for families between online or in-person classes. Administrators say they’re moving away from the hybrid schedule they used during the spring semester that required teachers to work simultaneously with students in both settings.

The summer programs, as in the past, will be focused on closing gaps and preventing summer learning loss, said Mary Boswell-McComas, chief academic officer for the system.

“I think this summer is just a heightened intensity,” Boswell-McComas said.

About 17,000 Baltimore County students have signed up for an extensive variety of systemwide programs, which are anchored in academics but include wraparound services that target the emotional well-being of children, she said.

The Harford County system has planned both a traditional summer school focused on student academics as well as a “Stars of Summer” program, which features about 75 unique academic experiences based on proposals submitted by teachers.

Anne Arundel County has increased by fourfold enrollment in its summer camps, which are a mix of academics and fun, according to school system spokesman Bob Mosier. Summer school will be for about 1,000 middle and high school students who need to make up classes they have failed.

While some students and teachers need a break from a stress-filled year of learning, others are ready to get back into a normal routine during summer school. Walker said some teachers are begging: “Please, put me in front of kids.”

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