After a year turned upside down by COVID-19, some Massachusetts school districts are looking ahead to summer and how they can use the traditional time off as a chance to expand educational opportunities interrupted during the pandemic.
School officials in Framingham, Chelsea, and Fall River said they hope to offer families and staff the option of participating in summertime programs — including academics, enrichment, and the arts — as a first step in what is expected to be a long process of helping students resume their normal schooling and lives. There would also be mental health support to help children navigate the trauma caused by COVID-19, school officials said.
“I think this once-in-a-hundred-year pandemic requires an extreme and robust reaction,” said Adam Freudberg, chairman of the Framingham School Committee. “We have to go big.”
The planning comes as billions of dollars in federal stimulus money is being earmarked for school districts across the country to help children grapple with the academic and emotional toll wrought by COVID-19. President Biden signed the $1.9 trillion stimulus package into law Thursday.
Massachusetts Secretary of Education James Peyser, in a statement released Tuesday, said the state is working on plans to expand in-person summer school programs and “acceleration academies” during school vacations to help students catch up.
The state is also increasing support for struggling young readers, access to special education services and mental health supports, and college and career readiness programs for recent high school graduates, Peyser said.
The Baker administration expects to announce more detailed plans regarding schools in the next few weeks, the statement said.
Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said that with the influx of federal money, “districts will be looking carefully at summer programs and tutoring especially for those at-risk students for whom remote learning wasn’t successful.”
Planning is already underway in Chelsea, where families have been devastated by the pandemic.
Chelsea Superintendent Almi Abeyta said summer learning will include a variety of offerings such as calculus for middle schoolers and literacy programs for younger grades. The city will also provide academic support for older students working toward their diplomas. Social workers and school counselors will be available to all students in the summer.
“If a student is struggling emotionally, it’s really hard for a student to learn,” Abeyta said. “We have to meet their social emotional needs, and then you can start to help them.”
They are also looking to the fall, including a new program that — by design — will be run remotely.
Chelsea’s “Twilight School,” a remote program for high schoolers that begins this fall and will run from 4 to 7 p.m., is designed to allow students who otherwise can’t attend class during the day to pursue their education at an alternative time.
There are students in Chelsea whose families rely on them working for financial support, she said, and the program is designed to meet their needs.
“We’re thinking out of the box right now. What we realized is our students are still having to provide for their families,” Abeyta said. “What we realized with the remote learning is that you can expand the remote learning to anytime.”
In Fall River, Superintendent Matt Malone said the district is designing extended learning plans for the summer and coming year that offer a mix of academic and social support.
“The research experts are saying it’s going to be a couple years to close these gaps. We are not going to do it overnight. But we do need to have a plan,” Malone said. “We are in a marathon here.”
Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said school administrators are not considering plans to simply drill students on material they might have missed during the year.
“We want to identify where is the learning loss, what kind of academic support they need, [and] the social experience that they have been missing, and provide that as well,” Scott said.
Summer educational programming is expected to get a boost from the state’s share of the federal stimulus’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund, which is estimated to be about $1.83 billion, according to a March 8 Congressional Research Service report.
The funding would include an estimated minimum of $1.64 billion for school districts in Massachusetts, with about $329 million reserved for addressing learning loss.
The remainder — approximately $183 million — would go to the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Those state funds would include $91.5 million to address learning loss, $18.3 million for summer enrichment, and another $18.3 million for after-school programs.
In Framingham, extended learning proposals include a Summer Institute for high schoolers to earn graduation credits, a youth theater company, enrichment in areas like math, technology, and English language arts, and even television production.
Freudberg said he hopes the city’s School Committee will be able to approve a plan around the end of April.
“We have to get this right — it’s for our kids, our community, and our families,” he said.
To move ahead with summer programs, there are issues still to be resolved, including the role of teachers in planning discussions.
Christine Mulroney, president of the Framingham Teachers Association, said in an e-mail that she has not been involved in conversations about extended summer learning and services. Freudberg said the union will be consulted, and a staffing plan will be worked out.
Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and Beth Kontos, president of American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, each cautioned that educators and students must be part of the discussions that shape state and local districts’ extended learning time and summer programs.
Those groups must also feel safe enough to participate — and that means taking steps like ensuring widespread vaccinations for school workers and that communities reach low community spread of COVID-19 before proceeding, they said in separate interviews.
The MTA, which represents about 110,000 workers, is also planning to release its own recommendations for summer extended learning programs, Najimy said.
“The stakes are so high, and the people who know best are the people closest to the school level,” said Najimy. “And that’s students, their parents, [and] their educators.”
Kontos, whose organization includes 23,000 educators and staff in cities like Boston and Springfield, said extended learning efforts in the summer and beyond could be a chance to help strengthen school communities that have been separated by the pandemic.
“This is an opportunity to create the community that might have been lost . . . because we weren’t together physically,” Kontos said. “This is a chance to bring us together, reconnect the learning community, make it enjoyable, [and] make it safe.”
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.