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This summer is the first opportunity to recover learning lost in pandemic 

Laura Wade has been teaching in the Lucia Mar Unified School District for more than 40 years, and until this year, she'd never seen students excited to attend summer school.

"They're on time, they're engaged," Wade said. "It's great."

click to enlarge BACK TO SCHOOL ALREADY School districts in San Luis Obispo County are working to meet an unprecedented demand for summer school classes, credit recovery courses, and social and physical activities for youth after a year and a half of distance and hybrid learning. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • BACK TO SCHOOL ALREADY School districts in San Luis Obispo County are working to meet an unprecedented demand for summer school classes, credit recovery courses, and social and physical activities for youth after a year and a half of distance and hybrid learning.

Wade, a ninth grade English teacher at Arroyo Grande High School, said her summer school classes are always pretty full. Students have to complete four years of English to graduate, and failing even just one semester of English requires some form of credit recovery.

But this summer, after more than a year of isolation and online learning, Wade said there's a different energy on campus.

"For a lot of the students," Wade said, "it was a rough year for them just because of the setting of school."

While schools were closed to in-person classes, a lot of Wade's students were stuck in tough situations at home—caring for younger siblings or working jobs during school hours to help their families get by, struggling to find adequate quiet space to do schoolwork, or left without a steady Wi-Fi connection.

The 25 students currently enrolled in Wade's two-week summer English class are all there because they failed their first semester of ninth grade English. They have to wear masks, stay physically distanced from each other, and they're in class for five hours a day. But Wade said on June 18—a week into summer school—that her students seemed more than happy to be in class, to have somewhere to go, to see friends.

"Kids are very social, and they've missed that," Wade said.

Although some children took to distance learning and thrived, education leaders say that wasn't the case for the majority of K-12 students, who faced a variety of challenges to learning and physical and mental health during the pandemic. Now, schools throughout the county are meeting the unprecedented demand for activities and credit-recovery classes through increased pay for summer school teachers, a plethora of credit and learning recovery programs, and intensified mental health services.

In the Lucia Mar Unified School District, 751 students enrolled in summer school in 2019 (not including those enrolled in special education), according to district spokesperson Amy Jacobs. This summer that number more than doubled, jumping to 1,669 students.

"I mean our teachers and our students and our families did absolutely as well as they could during distance learning, and we were glad to reopen our schools to any in-person learner who wanted to return in March," said Hillery Dixon, Lucia Mar's assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. "But we were on the hybrid schedule, which meant half days for kids so we could ensure that we were following the physical-distancing guidelines. So with all of that, it was a really atypical year."

Dixon is a member of Lucia Mar's Learning Recovery Task Force, a group that formed in an effort to address the academic and emotional deficits impacting students amid COVID-19 closures. In February, Dixon and other members of the task force presented a Learning Recovering and Resilience Plan aimed at helping students make up for lost instruction time and recover from the social and emotional traumas many faced within the last year.

Although there are plans for extra tutoring and intervention services next school year, Dixon said the district's expanded summer school programs and professional development opportunities are a cornerstone of the recovery plan.

"But a lot of things have to wait until everybody's back in school. And summer school is not one of those things," Dixon said. "So we did some things at the end of this year to work on credit, recovery and extra access for kids. But as we launch into next year, summer school is really the first kind of signature big effort. And I know we're not alone in that in the county."

Still, all that extra access requires more classrooms, teachers, meals—more of everything. In March, the Lucia Mar board of education approved an agreement allowing the district to pay teachers more than usual to work during the summer, a move that several SLO County districts also made.

Typically teachers who opt in to summer school make a flat rate of around $36 an hour, which equates to about what a new hire would make during the normal school year. But some teachers, especially those who have been around for a long time, make more than that during the school year, so summer school positions are often difficult to fill.

This year, Lucia Mar's summer school teachers are making whatever they'd normally make during the school year, at an estimated cost to the district of around $1.1 million in COVID-19 relief funding.

Lucia Mar expects to receive around $31 million in pandemic relief funding from the CARES Act, the American Rescue Plan, and several grants, according to Jim Empey, assistant superintendent of business. The district set aside $3 million of that to use on expanded summer school options this year and next summer.

Those expanded options add up to a good incentive for teachers who need this summer break more than ever, according to Teacher Association President Cody King.

"Everybody kind of went off the grid, which is understandable," he said. "So I think this is a necessary thing in order to staff all of the positions."

The San Luis Coastal Unified School District is also paying its teachers more this summer for similar reasons, according to Director of Learning and Achievement Rick Mayfield. That added cost will come out of the roughly $12.3 million in state and federal COVID-19 relief dollars that San Luis Coastal received.

But where Lucia Mar is looking to fill a high quantity of positions to reach as many kids as possible, San Luis Coastal is hoping to fill those positions with higher quality teachers for its more intensive summer offerings. Although summer classrooms are capped at 15 students (rather than the usual 20 to 30) to maintain physical distancing, there are more students enrolled in summer school this year than ever, Mayfield said.

The increase in summer school pay was ultimately designed to get the district's veteran teachers on board, and Mayfield said it worked.

"In the past we've had to hire some subs, brand new teachers, we're kind of scrambling to fill the spots for summer. And this summer we didn't have to do that. So this summer we have, you know, our regularly credentialed, high quality teachers in those classes," he said.

These instructors will be tasked with teaching new curricula developed specifically to address the complicated issues children are facing post-pandemic. The district purchased thousands of new books and added in afternoon elective activities that focus on science, art, and physical education.

"So I would say this summer will be the best in terms of quality of instruction, small number of students, our lasering in on our most needy students for the summer program to recover learning and kind of prepare them for the fall," Mayfield said.

Although much of the current funding is one-time, several districts in SLO County are hoping that some of the changes made to their summer school programming will continue into the future, Mayfield said.

"It's so great, like even now in the spring, to have the kids back and to be working with them one-on-one, and we've seen quickly some progress, and we've seen kids make up lost ground, kids who were not engaged," he said. "And so we're just really enthused at the results of our work already." Δ

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at kbubnash@newtimesslo.com.

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