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More kids are back in school this summer, and loving it

At the Clifford Marshall Elementary School in Quincy, Jon Belber from Holly Hill Farms shows kids how to plant seedlings.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

After a year of mostly virtual learning, Katie Hansen said a valuable benefit of summer school for the incoming second graders she teaches in Quincy is simply the chance to be together in the classroom.

“I think the kids need to be with each other, they need to learn those basic social skills that they might have missed. It was a very difficult year,” said Hansen, who is enjoying seeing students in person herself.

“I missed talking to them,” said Hansen, who during the regular school year teaches second grade at the Clifford Marshall Elementary School, where her summer school class is also meeting. “When we were online, everyone had to wait their turn to say the littlest thing. Now we can sit in a group and do group lessons all together so it’s a whole different ballgame.”

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Quincy is among districts in Massachusetts that are holding expanded voluntary summer school sessions this year. School officials say the extended learning time is needed to help students who struggled academically during the pandemic, but equally important in addressing the emotional toll the year has taken on so many children.

“Teachers were wonderful in meeting the academic needs of students, but it’s challenging trying to create social opportunities over the computer. So having students come in and engage with one another is a real benefit,” said Julie Forry, school adjustment counselor at Chelsea’s Berkowitz Elementary School and manager of the city’s summer school program.

Quincy Superintendent Kevin W. Mulvey said children attending summer school “are getting to see students they haven’t seen in a year and getting to socialize with their peers. And they are enjoying fun activities outside the household and getting more acclimated to a normal school setting.”

Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said most of the state’s urban districts — which generally had the highest percentage of fully remote students during the pandemic — are offering expanded summer programs this year. “I don’t see as many suburban districts doing it,” he said.

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“A lot of districts are taking a balanced approach with their summer programs, working on learning loss as well as some of the social-emotional loss students experienced in terms of connecting with each other.”

Scott said many of the districts with expanded summer programs were able to draw upon federal stimulus funds available to help schools address the pandemic’s learning impacts, aid that is targeted in particular to communities with under-served populations.

“One of the major things we discovered during the pandemic is that issues of equity are a serious concern — many families and communities just don’t have the resources other communities do. Summer programs are one way to get at that,” he said.

Quincy offered a more “robust” version of its typical summer program last year and this summer is expanding it further, with 2,695 of the district’s 9,600 K-12 students — and about 300 staff members — participating, according to Mulvey.

“We knew that we wanted to give our students as many opportunities to make up for the crazy year we had this past year, so we are offering a program that runs the gamut from math and English to science, technology, engineering, and reading, to programs geared to special education students and our career and technical education students,” Mulvey said.

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“After such a tough year we wouldn’t have blamed students or staff who said they needed to take a break so we were pleasantly surprised at the number of students and staff that wanted to participate.”

Chelsea in past summers has offered general and special education classes, and a transition program for incoming ninth-graders. This year, it added a K-12 English Language Learners program, and credit recovery classes for high schoolers. It also launched a program to prepare middle school students for high school calculus.

“We tried to be a bit more robust this summer because we wanted to engage as many students as we could,” said School Superintendent Almi G. Abeyta, noting that 950 of the district’s approximately 6,000 students enrolled, compared with 600 to 700 in a typical year.

Framingham has expanded its regular summer academic support program and added an “emotional support enrichment” component, said Tiffany Lillie, director of the school department’s Community Resource Development Office.

The district increased the availability of credit recovery courses at the high school, and added more courses in the elementary and middle schools to help students learn content they have not previously mastered or to simply prepare them for next school year.

About 1,800 of the district’s 10,000 students are participating — compared with 800 to 1,000 in a typical year — and about 100 teachers and other staff, Lillie said.

The expanded summer session is “tremendously important,” said Jacqueline Carrasquillo, the district’s literacy facilitator and summer coordinator of a reading and STEM and arts programs for kindergarteners and first graders..

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Noting that many kindergarten and first-grade students were in person for only a couple of months last year — and some not at all — she said, “this is really continuing their school year and giving them those opportunities.”

A rising first-grader works on the computer at Clifford Marshall Elementary School’s summer school program. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

To keep students cool, Chelsea and Quincy are housing their summer programs in schools with air conditioning. In Framingham, most of the summer school classrooms are air-conditioned, and those that are not have high-powered fans, Lillie said.

In part to help students recover from the stress of the past year, and in view of the fact that they are attending school during the summer, districts are aiming to make the experience enjoyable. That includes maximizing use of outdoor spaces, which has the added benefit of enhancing safety during the prolonged COVID-19 period.

“In the summer, part of our job is making sure we put a smile on the kids’ faces,” said Malik Howshan, Chelsea’s extended learning coordinator.

“We developed our summer program in such a way that all the programming we have is basically fun types of activities that incorporate curriculum into them,” Mulvey said.

As an example, Mulvey cited an “Inspiration Fit Math” program that blends math learning with physical activity. At the Marshall school, a farmer visits weekly to help children with an on-site gardening project.

Hansen said her class “is a lot more relaxed. We play a lot of games and have two online math and reading programs that they are very excited about.” She said her class also engages in many arts and crafts activities, and is often outside.

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“That’s so important. We’ve been outside even when it looks like rain,” she said, noting that Marshall has an “outdoor classroom” — a fenced-off area with seating — near the school playground.

Framingham is combining social-emotional learning time in the morning with fun-oriented enrichment in the afternoon, which includes such activities as sports, robotics, and theater.

As examples, Lillie said a dietician provided by the MetroWest YMCA teaches a daily cooking class to middle school students in which they also learn about food science, and Viking Sports daily brings its Ninja Warrior fitness obstacle course program to elementary school students.

In concert with its summer school, the Framingham district is featuring several family-oriented programs, including a virtual book club led by a local barber in which students meet regularly at a park to have their hair cut.

Chelsea’s summer program includes “more hands-on activities” and regular use of the outdoors, according to Abeyta, noting that even some regular classes are held under the trees.

The summer session also includes special features, such as the REACH program, which takes high school students on overnight trips to New Hampshire.

Abeyta anticipates Chelsea’s expanded program will be offered in future years.

“We want to offer more robust and a greater number of opportunities for our students, not just in academics but other ones in the arts and STEM,” she said. “So I see it as a fresh step and we will continue to try to expand our portfolio to meet the needs of the whole child.”

“Over the last year through the pandemic, I think we’ve all learned there are so many ways you can meet student and family needs,” Forry said. “And I think summer programming will be able to build off of that, knowing that we can be more flexible than maybe we ever realized we could be with how students engage with school.”

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.

Jon Belber from Holly Hill Farms helps students water seedlings in Quincy. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff