Editor’s Note: COVID-19 has forced the closure of schools nationwide – in some cases for the rest of the school year. Here, Jon Pedersen, dean of the college of education at the University of South Carolina, expounds on what the school shutdowns could mean for the traditional summer break.
Will schools make up lost time this summer?
This should be decided by each school district in conjunction with state education agencies. A blanket approach is not the best option, nor an assumption that every school district, even within a state, is addressing the needs of all students in the same manner through online learning. Students in the poorest zip codes and in rural areas where there is a lack of connectivity and a digital divide are likely to lose the most as schools attempt to finish the year online.
Many families own cellphones – about one in four adults living in households earning less than US$30,000 a year have smartphones, according to the Pew Research Center. Yet the homes in many cases lack broadband internet access. Smartphones don’t offer the same capacity to connect or engage in online learning that computers or even tablets offer.
Furthermore, it is not yet clear how this pandemic will impact the summer slide, which is the learning that gets lost during summer vacation. New research indicates that the “COVID slide” could be worse than the summer slide.
Many teachers have reported that a lot of kids are absent for the online classes that are being held in place of regular classes. In most cases this is in areas that lack connectivity and in communities that are economically challenged. This means many schools and districts will have to plan interventions for children who’ve fallen behind.
Will COVID-19 become the death of summer vacation?
It is possible that it will be the death of summer vacation for this year. As Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, has stated, “You don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline.”
This also goes for America’s public schools. Even if school is held this summer, I don’t think the change will be permanent. Schools districts may consider continuing in the summer as an option to remediate students prior to the start of a fall. However, it is unlikely that schools will decide to continue with year-round schooling in future years. Research on year-round school has been mixed, with some studies showing the advantages, such as year-round remediation and eliminating the boredom during the summer, and other studies showing its disadvantages, such as impacting family schedules and the higher cost of operating a school throughout the year.
What is the origin of summer vacation?
It has been widely shared that the predominance of agriculture as a main industry dictated the very nature of the school year in the 1800s and early 1900s. But at that time, there were no standards for the amount of time spent in schools and certainly not a uniform standard across the U.S. for all public schools regarding the school year.
In some cases, the farming economy that dominated the U.S. at the time influenced the calendar of the public schools in particular locations. Although the summer “off” makes some sense in terms of the needs of some families to carry out farm work, some argue that school summer vacations have little to do with that and actually more to do with children in urban settings. In particular, there were concerns about the heat of the summer and the impact on children and teachers in un-air-conditioned buildings. Those that could afford to do so escaped the heat of the city to other places.
Education reformers reasoned by the late 19th century that a standard calendar with a summer break would provide an opportunity for students and teachers alike to refocus. It was not until the early 20th century that a standard school calendar was implemented. Today, most schools (about 86%) are on a 9-month calendar with a summer break – although the length of the summer break and length of the school year varies.
In the past few decades, state and federal lawmakers have debated whether increasing the length of the school day and school year would positively impact student achievement. Proponents of longer school days and school year argue that the top-performing schools in the world have more hours of school than the U.S. However, this is not accurate. The National Center for Educational Statistics provides clear data related to the number of hours spent in the classroom in the U.S. as compared to other countries which shows that currently the United States is comparable in the number of hours per day and days per year to other countries around the world.
Is there really a ‘summer loss’ that results from summer break?
Some research shows that there is a “summer slide,” or a loss of knowledge by students, especially those who lack access to summer camps or other enrichment activities. Some researchers suggest that children could lose up to two or three months during this time off. More current research indicates not all students lose knowledge during the summer, and that summer slide is linked to socioeconomic status and achievement gains during the school year. The data shows that “the more students gain during a school year, the more likely they are to lose ground during summer break.”
Although socioeconomic status plays a role in the slide, it is not the only factor. However, during the current COVID-19 crisis, the children who are disadvantaged currently are those with the lack of internet connectivity and technological resources. They are, in many cases, disadvantaged by poverty. This inequity must be addressed.