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Local school districts using COVID-19 relief funds to reinvent summer school

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First graders from Mark Twain Elementary and Copperopolis Elementary engage in a STEM activity during the summer school program at Mark Twain Elementary.

An inflow of COVID-19 relief dollars is encouraging some school districts to offer more educational opportunities to students than ever before, though an apprehension remains that the well may soon run dry.

Thus far in 2021, the federal government has apportioned $54.3 billion in COVID-19 relief funds to elementary and secondary schools throughout the United States, while California school districts have received an additional $6.5 billion to provide supplemental instruction and support to students who have languished due to remote learning.

At Mark Twain Union Elementary School District (MTUESD), about one-third—approximately $220,000—of their COVID-19 learning loss mitigation money from the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER II) fund and an Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELO) grant, allocated by state Assembly Bill 86, have been utilized to revamp its summer school program.

Participation has skyrocketed accordingly.

In years past, the district’s summer school program focused primarily on students with special needs, Individualized Education Plans (IEP), and those who were struggling severely with academics. About 40 or 50 students out of the combined total enrollment of 720 at Copperopolis Elementary and Mark Twain Elementary schools would normally attend for several weeks out of the summer, instructed by a handful of teachers and paraprofessionals.

This summer school session, the number of students has roughly doubled, largely due to the lingering impacts of spotty COVID-19-era education, but also due to the draw of fun, carefree learning and social time with friends.

Incoming fifth-grader Ryder Lenior wasn’t falling behind academically. But after a school year spent at home, learning remotely, he was itching to get out of the house and be with his friends—even if it meant foregoing some languid summer hours to be at Mark Twain Elementary, where classes convene.

“All my friends were there, and I was bored at home every day,” Lenior said. Besides, summer school isn’t like regular school. Classes are small, just 10 to 15 students per teacher, and participants get to choose an enrichment course in subjects like art, music and computer coding.

During the first three weeks of summer school, June 14 through July 1, Lenior enjoyed playing basketball during PE with his friends and created a folded paper shark in art class. He’ll return for the second three-week session, July 26 through Aug. 12, which ends just a few days before the fall semester begins.

In reimagining summer school for the socially deprived student, MTUESD Superintendent Paula Wyant and staff decided that the typical four weeks wasn’t enough.

“Research shows, in order to truly remediate or gain skill, you really need a six-week time span. Anything shorter than that, some kids will do OK, but if you want research-backed results, you need six weeks in small groups,” Wyant said.

After the past school year of just three hours of in-person instruction per day, October through June, and remote-only learning throughout the previous spring, administrators were concerned that students might not have the stamina to return to a traditional school setting. Because of this, they wanted to utilize four-hour-long summer school days to rekindle students’ curiosity and spark a love of learning.

“The atmosphere on campus has just been really positive. Kids are excited to have the opportunity to choose some (subjects). They are still at school doing hard work in reading and math, but also get to have some elements of play,” Wyant said. “(It) feels really good after coming off of a really hard year. There’s a lot of joy happening this summer.”

According to the program’s senior teacher and Ryder Lenior’s mom, Tamsen Lenior, summer school has been great for teachers, too.

“Your number one job is to make this fun, to make kids enjoy coming to school and enjoy learning,” Tamsen Lenior said.

The nine participating teachers have each implemented their own method of doing that, she said, from reading aloud an exciting novel to teaching students how to program their own computer game. Teachers have also been aided by 10 high-school aged “Learning Leaders” who lend their expertise in areas like technology, music and sports.

“They’re high schoolers, (so) they’re so cool. The kids really look up to them,” Tamsen Lenior said. In addition, the students have enjoyed the increased amount of attention they get from their teachers and classmates in intimate classroom settings.

Future data will show if and how smaller class sizes and other enhancements to the MTUESD summer school program have benefitted students. However, Wyant is already adamant that a similar program should continue next summer.

The determining factor lies in future funding for teachers, supplies and bussing, which will likely need to be sought through other grants.

Along with other school districts that offered an expanded summer school program this year, including Calaveras Unified School District, which served about 160 non-IEP students for the first time in many years, MTUESD must spend their COVID-19 relief dollars with caution, as future funding for blossoming new programs remains uncertain.

Currently, public schools across the state are waiting to reconcile the pandemic drop in enrollment, the effects of which were postponed by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “Hold Harmless” measure extending 2019-20 attendance levels and base per-pupil funding rates to 2020-21.

Controversy continues heading into the 2021 fall semester, with some parents and educators opposing the state’s mask mandate for students. In Calaveras County, 488 parents have signed a petition to “unmask” local students, and Wyant believes the ongoing anxiety over masks could be a reason for the continued low enrollment in her district.

“Kindergarten registration is extremely low, beyond what we ever imagined,” she said. “It’s a huge ripple effect. We know (current) funds should be going into the fall of 2022-23 school year. We’re trying to be very judicious and very strategic in how we are spending those dollars. They’re all one-time only moneys. Once you spend them, they’re gone.”

Wyant says the future of programs like expanded summer school depend on what will happen with the pandemic, “both at the state and federal level.” But having money to spend on the “dreams” now coming to fruition has lent educators a false sense of security.

“We always have these dreams,” Wyant said.

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Dakota graduated from Bret Harte in 2013 and went to Davidson College, NC where she earned a bachelor's degree in Arab studies. After spending time studying in the Middle East and Europe, she is happy to be home, writing about the community she loves.

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