Massachusetts will dedicate more than $70 million for enhanced summer programs in response to reports of widespread learning loss during the pandemic, state officials announced Friday.
The funding will allow school districts and community organizations to set up both classroom and recreational programs for students of all grade levels.
“After a year of so much remote and hybrid learning, I think it’s crucial to give people these learning opportunities, and to give kids a chance to participate in them across Massachusetts,” Governor Charlie Baker said at a press conference at Galvin Middle School in Canton.
Learning loss has been a significant concern for state officials, educators, and parents, as the pandemic disrupted schooling in unprecedented ways, cutting off equal access to educational resources for many students. Particularly hard hit were students in homes with inadequate technology or headed by parents working full-time front-line jobs.
Roughly half of the state’s more than 900,000 public school students spent most of the school year learning from home, while tens of thousands of other students rotated days of classroom and remote instruction.
Earlier this month, the pace of students returning to classrooms full time accelerated after state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley ordered elementary schools to fully reopen by April 5 and middle schools by April 28. As of Wednesday, an estimated 650,000 Massachusetts public school students were learning in classrooms, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. That number is expected to rise dramatically when all high schools are supposed to reopen full time by May 17.
But with summer quickly approaching, state officials are worried that students could head into another period of learning loss without a concerted effort at intervention. Officials are most concerned about districts where families don’t have the resources to enroll children in summer camps.
“Although teachers have often made heroic efforts to engage their students in meaningful and effective remote and hybrid learning, the reality is that in too many of these cases, educational progress has been slowed and sometimes slowed significantly,” said Education Secretary James Peyser at Friday’s press conference.
The money can be used to fund or enhance existing programs, as well as to develop new ones.
School district leaders, many of whom have already been crafting summer programs, welcomed the additional money.
Brenda Cassellius, superintendent of Boston schools, said any infusion of money for summer programs would free up funding that could be used for academic interventions during the school year. Boston is expecting to serve 27,000 students this summer in preschool through high school in a variety of academic, enrichment, and summer job opportunities.
“This is probably the most important summer during my entire career that I feel students need to be engaged,” Cassellius said, noting many students, particularly younger ones, have struggled this year. “We are going to do everything to bridge those gaps, not only this summer but all next year as well.”
Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said he appreciated state officials’ holistic approach to summer programming, understanding the complex needs after more than a year of isolation.
But finding enough educators to staff the programs could be a problem, he said.
“We have a pretty exhausted contingency of educators right now,” he said, noting administrators and teachers have repeatedly had to overhaul instruction as learning shifted between remote and in-person. “They will need to have time for themselves to recharge if they are going to be ready for the fall.”
Yet, he added, because educators know their students, they’re the best positioned to help them this summer. School districts will likely need to consider incentives, such as attractive salaries, he said, to entice them to work rather than recuperate.
“This can’t be done on the cheap,” he said.
Nelly Medina, whose son attends public school in Worcester, said additional money for summer programming is a good first step, but state officials need to do more to ensure school districts have enough money for the upcoming academic year to address learning loss, adding that disadvantaged students have been struggling for decades.
She also noted that many families in communities hard hit by COVID-19 remain hesitant about sending their children back to school buildings.
“My biggest concern is that many of the children who will benefit the most from free, credit-bearing math and English courses [this summer] may miss out on the opportunity due to high-risk family members or themselves having a high-risk factor for COVID-19 complications such as asthma,” she said. “Our children are traumatized.”
She suggested that districts use the money to develop comprehensive trauma counseling programs this summer, so they’re prepared to meet students’ needs when they return in the fall.
One of the newly funded state initiatives is “acceleration academies,” where students will focus on just a single subject in a hands-on learning environment. The academies will be supported by up to $25 million in grants from federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Response discretionary funds.
Early literacy academies will be offered to incoming kindergartners and first and second graders, and math academies will be offered to incoming third, fourth, eighth, and 10th graders. Studies continue to show that students have missed out on fundamental math and reading skills during the pandemic, Governor Baker said.
“Academies will be much more than typical summer vacation learning camp,” Baker said. “The plan doesn’t ask schools to focus merely on academics. Kids also need opportunities to play with their friends and participate in safe environment and enrichment activities.”
The academies are expected to be a multiyear program that could benefit more than 50,000 students statewide each year, according to state officials.
The state will also offer summer school matching grants, using up to $15 million in federal funds, for school districts to expand in-person academic or recreational programs lasting four to six weeks, with the addition of mental health services or other supports.
State officials also plan to offer early literacy tutoring grants, a K-8 Math Acceleration program, a Biggest Winner Math Challenge for gifted math students, college classes for rising high school juniors and seniors enrolled in approved Early College programs, and resources to help camps and other community groups expand the educational components of existing summer programs.
Two other programs are geared toward the state’s oldest and youngest learners, respectively. The Summer Acceleration to College program, which will be offered at 14 community colleges, will give graduating seniors a chance to take math and English classes for credit at no cost. And the Summer Step Up program will provide support for young children who had limited in-school learning during the pandemic.
Baker also announced Friday that the state’s pool testing program for COVID-19, which already had been offered to all school districts free of charge through the end of the academic year, has been extended through the summer. From Feb. 1 to April 25, the state has processed 61,839 pools — bundles of multiple samples — from 188 districts. Only 0.85 percent of pooled tests have come back positive for COVID-19.