The Biggest Problem for America’s Schools

Summer programs will help. But they won’t be enough.

Students queue to enter school building in California.
Al Seib / Los Angeles Times / Getty

Brian Woods has seen a lot in his nearly 30 years as an educator in the Northside Independent School District, in San Antonio. Tornadoes and storms have damaged buildings and left area campuses without power for weeks. Hurricanes have sent an unexpected surge of students into the district. In hindsight, each of those disruptions seems temporary—minor, even—compared with what he’s seen over the past 12 months. Three times as many students as normal are failing courses. “It’s almost impossible to describe how disruptive this year has been,” Woods, the district superintendent, told me.

Across the country, school superintendents are describing a similar situation. In Wilson County, North Carolina, 46 percent of students in third to 12th grade failed at least one class. Nearly 30 percent of students in the Sequoia Union High School District, in Northern California, received at least one failing grade. More than 20,000 students in metro Atlanta are behind in English, and nearly 30,000 fell behind in math after just nine weeks of virtual learning, one study estimated.

By this point, the reasons students have struggled are well known. Many strained to adjust to virtual learning; others never did. Millions were unable to immediately participate, because they lacked Wi-Fi or access to a computer. Even schools that reopened with a mix of online and in-person classes faced significant challenges. In San Antonio’s Northside district, which has been partially open since the fall, absences have risen dramatically. Of those students who attend class, Woods told me, some are showing up for just one or two classes and skipping the rest.“The last time I got a report from my folks, we were averaging about two out of every 10 actually agreeing to return,” he said of students falling behind in online classes.

Like the pandemic itself, this crisis has disproportionately affected Black, Latino, and low-income students; they have lost six to 12 months of learning, according to a recent report from McKinsey. “If you have an achievement gap and then you go to remote learning, I think you can assume that those at the bottom of the achievement gap are going to fare worse,” Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia, the chair of the House Education Committee, told me.

By any measure, the challenges brought on by the past year have been monumental. Now district leaders are turning to a question that may be even more daunting: How do they help students catch up?

The most immediate and widespread answer is summer school. “It is our next and best opportunity to reconnect kids with their school community,” Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, who was the superintendent of Denver Public Schools before entering Congress, said. “This is one of the last windows we have to help [students] readjust and reacclimate so that we put them in the strongest possible position to return to class this fall.”

Most districts offer some form of summer school, but this year will be different. In Columbus, Ohio, for example, the district’s summer program usually serves 4,000 students. It’s expecting 10,000, which is roughly one out of every five students, Talisa Dixon, the superintendent, told me. The district is partnering with local colleges to bring in student teachers to keep up with the need and ensure that students learn in small groups. San Antonio’s Northside district is also preparing for an influx of thousands more students this summer; it has set aside $14 million—$10 million more than in a typical year—and has plans to add three weeks. Atlanta Public Schools has budgeted $15 million for 20,000 students to attend summer courses for four weeks, 10,000 more students than would ordinarily attend.

In many places, summer programming will not be limited to classroom instruction. Columbus is allocating time to take students to the zoo, the library, museums, and science centers. “Remember, last summer our programs were remote,” Dixon said. “We know that we have to have some academic support, but we also need social-emotional support available for our students.” No educational organization is keeping track of how many districts will be hosting similar enrichment programs, but districts from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Raleigh, North Carolina, to Washington, D.C., have announced similar programs.

Some districts are also extending the school year by several weeks. But many superintendents are concerned about the toll the past year has taken on teachers. “They’ve been doing a great job, but they are just exhausted,” Dixon told me. That’s why districts are looking to hire additional staff for the summer, so that their regular teachers have time to rest. Beyond extra teachers, Woods believes that districts also need to pay summer staff more than they have in the past, because they’re being asked to meet such a huge need.

None of this will be cheap, and after a year of unexpected expenses—laptops for students, facilities upgrades—many districts have exhausted their reserve funds. School-finance experts estimate that districts have lost north of $200 billion during the pandemic. The recently enacted COVID-19 relief bill includes $126 billion for K–12 schools, 20 percent of which is designated for helping districts make up for learning loss. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut successfully pushed for some of the funding to go to summer enrichment programs like those Columbus is planning. “While we were so laser-focused on learning loss, we forget the emotional toll that the last year has taken,” Murphy told me. “More kids than we think are going to need an emotional and psychological recharge this summer and are going to need to have a safe, fun, uplifting experience to kind of reset their brains so they’re ready to learn in the fall.”

No one I spoke with has any illusions that students will magically catch up because districts are extending the school year or offering more summer classes. If history is a guide, the commitment from state and federal officials for robust financial support will likely dissipate as soon as students from well-off families are fully back in classrooms. America has a habit of forgetting its Black, brown, and low-income citizens. Leaders like Woods and Dixon say they are looking at years of remediation, not months. “It will go way beyond 2021,” Woods told me. But the summer is a start.