Florida private schools strive to offset learning loss from COVID-19, summer slide

North Florida School of Special Education in Jacksonville bolstered its summer camp with academics this year to help prevent learning loss.

North Florida School of Special Education had high hopes for its first eight-week summer camp, designed with a focus on art, music and outdoor activities.

Then in March, COVID-19 forced the Jacksonville private school for children with special needs to pivot to distance learning.

Administrators and staff handled the situation well, but concerns arose about the possibility of learning loss resulting from three months away from in-person instruction followed by summer break. They revamped the summer camp, adding an hour of math and reading each day to bridge any gaps.

They were right to be concerned about the need to provide academic support for their students, according to experts on learning loss. Research shows such losses already occur each summer and are more pronounced among low-income students who lack access to the summer enrichment opportunities of their better-off classmates.

A recent study by the American Educational Research Association showed that more than half of students in the United States experienced summer learning loss five years in a row, with an average loss of 39% of their school year gains.

Our results highlight that achievement disparities disproportionately widen during summer periods, and presumably the ‘longer summer’ brought on by COVID-19 would allow this to happen to an even greater extent,” said Allison Atteberry, assistant professor at the University of Colorado – Boulder in a news release. “Summer learning loss is just one example of how the current crisis will likely exacerbate outcome inequality.”

A report prepared by J. Howard Johnston, emeritus professor of education at the University of South Florida and interim associate director for policy for the David C. Anchin Center in the College of Education, painted a similarly grim picture.

“The challenge in the current pandemic … is that many of the compensatory resources that are applied to the summer learning loss, such as summer school or community-based programs, are no longer available because of ‘shelter in place’ orders or public health recommendations for social distancing,” the report concluded.

Some education experts were calling for summer school as early as March, when campuses closed and it became apparent schools would not be able to reopen during the 2019-20 academic year. Many public schools limited summer programs to online, which did little to help students who lack internet access or electronic devices. Private schools, many of which lack the funding to hire teachers during the summer and rely on youth workers to handle summer camps, were at a disadvantage this year because many community-based programs were closed.

Heartland Christian Academy in Sebring, like North Florida School of Special Education, was among the exceptions. Its onsite math camp ran the first three weeks of June for students in grades 8 through 11. For three hours a day, students received remedial help in geometry and algebra to get them ready for higher-level math in the fall.

“The target was to get the students who had struggled the last nine weeks,” said school director Rebekah Kogelschatz, who helped teach the class.

Twelve students participated in the camp, which was paid for with Title I funds designated to help low-income students.

Both North Florida School of Special Education and Heartland Christian Academy followed strict guidelines to keep students safe. Campers at the former were grouped by age in clusters of eight and maintained social distancing, according to Donna Vaughn, director of students and admissions. Instead of singing during music sessions, a possible risk factor in the spread of the virus, they made noise with percussion instruments that were disinfected between classes.

Administrators at both schools are hopeful their efforts will make a difference academically. But they’re aware they may reap an additional benefit: Their summer camps served as a dress rehearsal for a safer reopening in the fall.

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BY Lisa Buie

Lisa Buie is senior reporter for NextSteps. The daughter of a public school superintendent, she spent more than a dozen years as a reporter and bureau chief at the Tampa Bay Times before joining Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa, where she served for nearly five years as marketing and communications manager. She lives with her husband and their teenage son, who has benefited from education choice.