This summer will be key time in education

Schools may be closed, but learning doesn’t have to stop

COVID-19 HAS LIFTED the veil on the disparities in health and education based on race, income, and geography. The underlying conditions that preceded the pandemic are now front page news.

With school buildings closed, all children will suffer from not being in the presence of dedicated teachers, but the consequences will be especially profound for low-income, black, and Latinx youth.

These increasingly evident inequities are exacerbated by the summer recess in the calendar adopted by most American public schools. A 2019 National Academies report documents these inequities and recommends that the private sector, philanthropy, and government invest in summer learning and employment for young people to mitigate the “summer slide.”

The challenge before us is how we respond.

We are called upon, now more than ever, to address these persistent and systemic disparities, which exist in and out of school. Boston and our Commonwealth can lead the way in preventing the summer slide and avoid a half-year cliff.

We have led the nation in this work, and our organizations along with hundreds of others are stepping up to work with city and state leaders to make the most of this summer. Although school buildings are closed, learning doesn’t have to stop. Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius had the foresight to see this would be a huge need, enlisted our help, and began planning for this new reality the very day schools closed in March.

Boston is an award-winning example for other cities to follow. For a decade, we have filled the gap left by the discontinuity in the school calendar, drawing on the strengths of the city’s natural, cultural, and neighborhood resources, with support from our business community, to engage students year-round. We have thoughtfully integrated academics and enrichment so that students have experiences that help them build background knowledge and skills necessary for success in school and beyond.

This approach gets results. National research shows that high-attending summer program participants outperformed their peers by 25 percent of a school year’s worth of learning in math and language arts, as well as in social and emotional skills. With this evidence, the Boston Public Schools replaced traditional summer school with summer learning that combines enrichment, academics, and social and emotional skill development. The MacArthur Foundation recognized our summer approach as a top solution among hundreds of applicants in its $100 million worldwide grant competition, a testament to the potential impact of summer work and learning.

Policy leaders, parents, and the public are now looking to the summer months as the next opportunity to engage students in learning and enrichment. We are activating our network of partners to deliver skills-focused, project-based learning, particularly for those who need it most, to ensure that young people have the best summer ever.

Of course, our students’ safety is our top priority. We are planning for in-person and remote learning scenarios, as well as a hybrid of the two, pending guidance from public health officials in the coming weeks.

We know a lot can be done in small groups, and we have the space in our state and in our network to engage students at a safe distance. Consider Camp Ponkapoag, which the YMCA runs, a short bus ride from most Boston neighborhoods, with over 8,000 acres of natural classrooms where young people can learn, explore, and be physically active. We’re working with many summer programs to ensure they can operate safely once the city is reopened, following public health guidelines.  We will continue to collaborate with BPS, city, state, and federal leaders to ensure we have the right resources and protocols in place should we get the “green light.”

Meet the Author

Chris Smith

Executive director, Boston After School & Beyond
Meet the Author

James Morton

President and CEO, YMCA of Greater Boston
Simultaneously, we will plan ways to engage young people in remote learning and enrichment projects, drawing on our extensive network of programs, including the New England Aquarium and the Franklin Park Zoo.

This summer is an opportunity to reclaim some of what makes us who we are: a community that celebrates our rich diversity and shared history and takes pride in its ability to adapt to change and pull together in times of challenge. We will deliver summer learning, whatever the conditions, because our children are depending on us.

Chris Smith is executive director of Boston After School & Beyond and James Morton is the president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Boston, vice-chair of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and board member of Boston After School & Beyond.