Summer School Could Address the COVID Slide, But What Do Teacher Unions Think?
When the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold in the United States in spring 2020, many school districts switched to distance learning seemingly overnight. Now, education experts are weighing the nature and impact of the transition on students and teachers, along with potential ways to address the resultant upheaval.
The unexpected closure of physical school buildings led many administrators, teachers, and other education stakeholders to anticipate a widespread and significant loss of learning for many students. Now, some are suggesting that the typically idle summer months be used to get kids back up to speed. Dr. Terry Stoops of the John Locke Foundation outlined the reasons why school and government officials should seriously consider the proposition in a recent blog post.
“Proponents of summer school argue that a six-week session that begins in mid-July and concludes a week or more before the first day of school (to accommodate teacher workdays) would allow teachers to cover content missed from March to June,” Dr. Stoops explained. He then went on to explore the associated cost considerations, noting that early estimates point to around $8 billion in teacher salaries alone.
While this is no small sum, another proponent of the approach believes paying teachers for additional summer hours would benefit both students and local economies; in a piece penned for the Brookings Institution, Douglas Harris of Tulane University opined that more money in teachers’ pockets would amount to increased spending on goods and services, which would help restore the health of businesses and communities.
So, what do teachers—and the nation’s two largest teacher unions—think about extending the school year through summer?
Teacher unions weigh in
As the pandemic began to take hold, the American Federation of Teachers published a document outlining its plan for schools and communities to safely reopen that included recommendations for summer school.
Here’s what an acceptable course of action might look like, according to the AFT:
Any return-to-school plan must prioritize public health concerns, first and foremost, by safeguarding the wellbeing of teachers, students, and staff members.
Optional summer school sessions could be a good way for local and state officials to try out new practices regarding schooling in the COVID-19 era, including more cleaning and enhanced handwashing efforts.
In addition to providing academic support, the AFT is proposing that summer school programs follow a comprehensive, community school model that is focused on collaboration, partnership, and providing essential resources to families.
In lieu of presenting a specific policy platform covering how to approach summer school amid the pandemic, National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen-Garcia has publicly echoed many components of the AFT guidelines.
PPE, class sizes, and the digital divide
Like the AFT, the NEA has insisted that health and safety come first in any school reopening plan. To this end, NEA officials called for approximately $56 million from Congress to facilitate the purchase of personal protective equipment for site-based staff. This piqued immediate concern for frontline workers, as individuals such as bus drivers and kitchen staff have either already returned to work or never got a break in the first place because they were deemed essential.
In an interview with National Public Radio, Eskelsen-Garcia weighed in on other issues connected with restarting school during the pandemic, including the digital divide. According to the NEA president, access to electronic devices should now be considered as “essential as indoor plumbing.”
Eskelsen-Garcia also emphasized the union’s long-standing push for smaller class sizes, something many experts agree should be required for schools to reopen.
Contemplating summer school without meeting conditions such as PPE for site-based staff and class sizes conducive to social distancing may seem premature, but once safety considerations can be uniformly upheld, restarting school in the summer could be a viable way to address the education-related upheaval wrought by the pandemic.
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