A record number of Kansas youths to attend summer school after pandemic. Not all who need to attend will do so.

By Suzanne Perez
Kansas News Service
Students participate in a summer school program at Cessna Elementary School in Wichita.

WICHITA — One thing the world learned during the pandemic is that schoolchildren lose pace when Zoom replaces the classroom.

“There has been some academic slide,” said Andi Giesen, assistant superintendent for learning services at the Wichita district. “On a previous trajectory, we would have expected students to be maybe a little farther along with their learning.”

Enter summer school.

In the past, a relatively small fraction of students needed to spend the dog days catching up with their classmates. Come fall 2021, a far larger number of students across Kansas will enter their next grade without the skills they should have picked up last year.

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Consequently, a record number of Kansas youths plan to attend summer school.

But even more schoolchildren who need to catch up won’t go. Many students, families and teachers say they need a break after a crazy year of pandemic starts and stops, and they bowed out of summer school.

“It’s been a really incredibly hard year,” said Kari Ritter, a Topeka teacher and coordinator of the district’s summer programs. “I think parents are ready to give their children a break. We’re definitely seeing that.”

Educators concerned about earning loss

Not long after Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly sent children home from school more than a year ago, educators and politicians started talking about learning loss.

Congress approved three COVID-19 relief packages that will send about $130 billion directly to K-12 schools — money districts can spend to reopen safely and help youths who have fallen behind. Kansas will get about $1.3 billion over three years.

Still, significant numbers of families weary from tending school-age children during a year-plus pandemic don’t appear eager to rush to school this summer.

“We’re really looking forward to just ... having a good time this summer,” said Emily Millspaugh, a mother of two who also teaches pre-kindergarten in Maize. “All of our kids, their bodies are craving interaction and movement and exploration that maybe they haven’t gotten to do this school year.”

Some parents say summer school helps get their children back into a routine while interacting with teachers and peers.

Millspaugh didn’t consider enrolling her daughters, Murphy and Wren, in any kind of structured school program this summer. Now that she and her husband are vaccinated, they’re taking a beach trip that got canceled last year. The family got a new labradoodle puppy, Ollie, and plans to just relax and play.

“We’re looking forward to kind of making up for lost time,” Millspaugh said. “And really having the opportunity to say, ‘Yes, let’s do these things,’ when we’ve had to say ‘no’ for so long.”

Wichita, the state’s largest school district, sent about 21,500 invitations to its summer programs for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Despite incentives such as free breakfast, lunch and transportation, only 4,600 — about one in five — enrolled.

“But I think this is every single year: You’re going to invite a bunch of students, whether it’s a COVID year or not, and you’re still probably only going to get half of them to come,” said Amanda Kingrey, assistant superintendent of secondary schools in Wichita. “So I think we fulfilled that (goal). ”

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Teachers weren’t quick to sign up either. The Topeka school district offered teachers more than double the regular rate for summer school this year — money they have onhand from the first round of federal aid — and still had a hard time finding takers.

“It’s a very real challenge,” said Ritter, the Topeka coordinator. “But on the flip side of that, we didn’t get the enrollment that we envisioned either.”

Ritter’s eighth-grade daughter wasn’t interested in the catalog of classes and camps being offered in Topeka.

“I asked about a couple of the fun classes, and she was like, ‘Nope!’ And I’m OK with that,” Ritter said. “I completely am on board with her just taking a mental break and knowing that next summer will be different.”

Some signing up for summer school for routine

Other parents said they’re taking advantage of summer school offerings to get their children back into a routine and interacting with teachers and peers.

“When they were at home for a period of time ... they definitely were not learning as much as they were in school,” said Kristin Marlett, a Wichita mother of two.

She said she wanted her sons, Oliver and Elliott, to get extra help with their reading this summer, so she enrolled them in the half-day summer camp at their Wichita elementary school.

“I feel like it’s not a punishment for them to go to summer school, because I think they’re going to have fun,” she said. “They love being around other kids, they love learning, and they’re going to be great at it.”

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It’s hard to say precisely how far behind students might be after more than a year of pandemic learning. The U.S. Department of Education waived federal testing requirements after schools closed for in-person instruction last spring.

States were required to administer the annual reading and math tests this year, but the Biden administration allowed for flexible options such as shortened tests and a longer testing window. Results from Kansas schools won’t be reported until July or August.

Education officials say they can’t predict how long the recovery will take. But they’re playing the long game, already planning for summer programs in 2022 and beyond.

“It may rebound quickly. We just don’t know, because we’ve never been through this type of loss,” said Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson. “But we’re hopeful that with multiple summer schools, multiple extended years, tutoring services — that we can make this up.”

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service.