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In-depth: To combat 'COVID-19 learning loss,' summer school enrollment increases in Kansas City

Sherry Reeves Basehor-Linwood Assistant Superintendent
Posted at 6:46 PM, Jun 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-14 12:45:32-04

BASEHOR, Kan. — Going to school looked different in Kansas City and across the country during the past 15 months amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stay-at-home orders last spring shuttered school buildings and pushed teachers, staff and students into a virtual environment.

Masks, social distancing and frequent hand-washing became part of the curriculum to help slow the virus’ spread for the districts that did return in-person late last fall.

Other districts, including Kansas City Public Schools and KCK Public Schools, remained virtual well into 2021.

As the pandemic stretched on, concern grew that many students, especially those utilizing virtual instruction, were falling behind.

It also prompted at least one area school district, Basehor-Linwood USD 458, to offer summer school for the first time.

“We are very conscientious about the learning loss of our students and have been able to get a pretty good feel for where our students are at and how to start up this next school year ...,” Basehor-Linwood Assistant Superintendent Sherry Reeves said. “With the concern about what is our current learning loss of our students, I think that’s what probably triggered us to move forward with this.”

Basehor-Linwood has toyed with the idea of adding summer school in the past, but had only offered credit-recovery options for secondary students until this summer.

Reeves said 145 elementary school students and around 50 middle and high school students enrolled in the new program, which started Tuesday and continues three days a week through July 1.

Reeves said around 8% to 10% of Basehor-Linwood students remained virtual throughout the 2020-21 school year, a lower percentage than many surrounding districts.

“We are really excited to be able to have summer school to have some of those students in our buildings, because making that reconnection into the buildings and the classroom and working with teachers has been very important, especially for our K-5 students,” she said.

The COVID-19 “learning loss,” which has led to an increase in summer school enrollment metrowide, as districts search for ways to mitigate the pandemic’s affect on education, is important for academics. But it’s about much more than test scores.

Districts also are looking at the social and emotional support students need.

“I think social/emotional concerns are always very, very critical as an element in having students prepared to learn ...,” Reeves said. “There is some learning loss, but not substantial. As I said earlier, we want to make sure we are connecting with our kids and kids are connected to our schools. Along with that is that wellness check-in type of thing, so all of our classes this summer are starting with that daily check-in to see how things are going.”

Based on a survey of 25 Kansas City-area school districts, which provided requested data, there are nearly 59,000 school-age children enrolled in summer school in 2021.

That’s a more than 40% increase from last year, when most districts saw significant dips in summer school enrollment or even canceled summer school altogether.

But it also represents a roughly 9% increase over historical averages from summer school enrollment in 2017-19.

Federal relief money from the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan will be used to help pay for some costs, including feeding students breakfast and lunch, during summer school.

Other districts also said the increased federal funding was important.

Lawrence USD 497 has never been able to offer more than credit recovery due to funding and staffing, according to the district’s Executive Director of Communications Julie Boyle.

She said COVID-19 relief dollars allowed Lawrence to expand its summer school program to include “our elementary and middle levels for students identified as needing extra support in reading, math and social-emotional learning.”

Turner USD 202 also used federal pandemic-relief funds to help bridge the learning-loss gap, enrolling more than twice as many students in summer programs compared to before COVID-19 struck.

Leavenworth USD 453 added summer school options for middle school students for the first time and also saw a record number of elementary school students enroll for 2021 after a recruitment drive.

“The primary factor for this year's offering is the identifiable loss of in-person instructional time between March 2020 and May 2021,” Director of Public Relations Jake Potter said via email.

Several other area school districts saw significant summer school increases:

  • Blue Springs averaged 3,309 summer school students from 2017-19, but has 4,239 students enrolled this summer;
  • Bonner Springs has up to four times the number of elementary school students (241) and up to three times the number of secondary students (128) enrolled compared to 2016-19;
  • De Soto’s summer school enrollment tripled this year compared to the previous four years;
  • Lee’s Summit R-7 saw a nearly 43% increase and the Park Hill School District reported a nearly 28% increase in summer school enrollment for 2021 compared to 2017-19 average;
  • KCK Public Schools reported a significant increase too with summer school enrollment climbing 19.5% from the summer of 2019 to 4,682 students in 2021.

Leavenworth’s summer school is “more of a camp model, with group collaboration and socialization opportunities” as opposed to a strictly classroom-based option.

Basehor-Linwood adopted a similar approach, but one it believes will help identify instruction areas and/or students in need of extra attention come next fall.

“We worked with our teachers to be able to provide some more active learning for them, so it wasn’t just repeated seat-time work and that type of thing,” Reeves said. “We are doing a lot of STEM activities, a lot of outdoor learning, but still it’s very much competency-based. We’ll get a good read on how the students will be at the end of summer school.”

Many other districts simply saw 2021 enrollment return to historical averages after last summer’s dip, but the common thread is that districts are aware of the challenges presented by COVID-19 learning loss and prepared to make sure it’s a short-term aberration and not a long-term problem.

Until we see our students again starting this next August, there’s some unknown there. Once we do have a better grasp on that, there will be some (learning loss), but I don’t look for it to be a lot.

We have placed interventionists in our classroom and every building in reading in mathematics, we have a school psych in every building, we have social workers in every building as well as counselors, and we have very supportive parents.

When you have that all together along with highly effective teachers, any kind of potential learning loss, we are going to be able to identify early on and then be able to provide the right resources for our students.
Basehor-Linwood Assistant Superintendent Sherry Reeves