Updated: Nov 22, 2021
Exhausted teachers. Needy students. Beleaguered parents. A collision occurring in every school today. In several previous pieces, I've argued for heads to take a long game approach to the 2021 - 2022 school year by minimizing institution-wide projects and giving faculty the time and resources they need to focus on their students. Here, I'll make a brief case for how elementary schools can use summer programs to address the needs of children as they emerge from the pandemic.
In my conversations with heads around the country this fall, I hear urgent concern about the youngest learners at their schools, roughly the 3 - 8 year old crowd. This fall, these children have struggled to recapture their social, emotional and physical stamina. In a recent Twitter thread on this subject, independent school counselor and author Phyllis Flagell (Middle School Matters) said, "If researchers would like to test my theory that students are struggling to meet the physical and emotional demands of a 5-day, in-person week, they should conduct fieldwork at any school's Thursday afternoon recess." Squabbling, physically aggressive, struggling to share space and resources, or withdrawn, glued to adults: by Thursday afternoon, elementary kids have run out of gas. To help teachers and kids, schools are layering in additional classroom support staff, counselors, and occupational and speech language therapists. Teachers also report wider than ever gaps in academic skills development even in schools that implemented excellent remote learning strategies. As we've come to know now and as most elementary school teachers knew from the outset, remote learning of any sort is ineffective for young learners. As Hechinger Report's Jackie Mader reports here, the students who returned to in person learning academically "on track" this fall almost invariably had a patient, capable adult at home each day to shepherd them through online schooling.
There is a frivolous take among some educators that considering kids "behind" at this moment is defeating and wrong-minded. Better to think of them as "different," they say, replete with the various, potentially inspiring experiences they had during the pandemic. The school experiences that 3-8 year olds missed, however, contain foundational growth in literacy, language, and understanding of community and one's role in it. Those experiences are elementally tied to daily IRL proximity to close age peers and thus, categorically different from the gaps in a ninth grader's understanding of algebra (although I would argue that what ninth graders missed in social learning is plenty problematic as well). Make no mistake, most young learners are behind socially, emotionally, physically, academically in ways that could have significant, lingering, developmental consequences.
One very practical measure schools can take to help these young learners is to design summer programs that will provide them with continued growth from this school year and momentum into next. They should not be constructed as "academic catch up;" rather they should be week long, thematically shaped experiences with a focus on social skill building, gross and fine motor challenge, and discovery, language rich with dramatic play and read aloud activities, and outdoors as much as possible. Experienced early childhood teachers should lead these camps with assistance from engaged college or high school age helpers. The week long structure gives summer program directors a much better chance of recruiting their colleagues to design and conduct the camps, and allows families to mix in vacations and other summer opportunities for their children. Camps like these provide parents with an alternative to traditional rec-center programs--kickball, Kool Aid, distracted high school "counselors"--or to a summer at home with the danger of a regression to heart-of-the-pandemic behaviors: adult-focused, screen-centric, indoors, inactive, squabbling with siblings and parents. If your school offers traditional camps, consider offering alternative experiences like the ones I describe here. Your early childhood, early elementary faculty can point out today the kids who will be in over their heads and soon miserable in the loose structure of a traditional camp or likely to return to dysfunctional at-home patterns or made more anxious by a summer of intense academic tutoring.