Summer Months Provide Opportunity to Boost Learning and Rebound from ‘COVID’ Slide

By Common Threads | Jul 16, 2020

Article by: Linda Novick O’Keefe, Co-Founder & CEO, Common Threads

With school being out and most of our summer plans on hold because of the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, many parents don’t know what to do to keep their children busy, engaged and smiling. More than any other summer, parents and educators are especially worried about the “summer slide,” or loss of academic progress, given the challenges students faced in finishing the academic year in a virtual environment.

“As teachers we anticipate a slight summer slide when we return to school each fall, but this year will look vastly different as students haven’t received rigorous in-person instruction since early March,” said Alejandro Diasgranados, a 4th/5th grade teacher at Aiton Elementary in Washington, D.C.

I noticed a difference in my own kids’ academic interests and performance once we were all doing our best to “work from home” when schools and offices abruptly closed in mid-March. I personally struggled to do my part to educate and monitor my children while going from Zoom meeting to Zoom meeting for work. I quickly realized how much I took teachers and the school environment for granted.

Like most families, virtual instruction for my two kids included some live instructional time, but mostly a self-paced schedule, which I recognize was a little easier for them to manage as teenagers than if they were much younger. Still, it wasn’t abnormal to observe the kids getting off track with calls to their friends, video games, or other distractions during what was supposed to be “school time.” As the days turned into weeks, we all found more of a rhythm, and like many parents, I began to “pick my battles” and focus on the bigger picture, knowing that this was a difficult experience for our kids and this was more than just making sure they were doing their homework.

“We were thrown into distance learning unexpectedly and this certainly took its toll on families,” said Dianna Rose, a librarian for Morningside K-8 Academy in Miami. “Self-care is essential for both kids and their parents and teachers, and it comes in many forms.”

My family was fortunate, and the small complaints and inconveniences were pretty trivial compared to the difficult circumstances many families faced as they approached virtual education and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether it was severe illness or death, the loss of income, or the lack of child care (oftentimes, a combination of these factors), COVID-19 presented many unprecedented challenges for families, which created a high level of stress. Schools stepped in to help, distributing millions of meals, and providing mental health and social work resources in this new digital environment.

“Kids are really struggling socially and emotionally… this is a whole different level of fear, concern and worry…,” said Arne Duncan, former secretary of education and former CEO of Chicago Public Schools in a recent interview on Bloomberg TV. “We have to meet kids where they are.”

Although virtual learning allowed for instruction to continue with few instructional days lost, the circumstance was not ideal for teaching and learning, and it was brand new territory for most children and educators. Some content doesn’t translate as well to a virtual environment, and many children, including those with learning differences, often need one-on-one, in-person attention that a traditional school environment provides. Experts stressed that virtual teaching is a skill in and of itself.

“There’s only so much teachers can do remotely,” said Maggie Ramos, parent coordinator for PS-88 in Queens. “In this remote world, some students thrive while others struggle. Every child learns differently, and remote learning has challenged the way they learn and forced them to adapt to a new norm.”

Based on a study by NWEA and Brown University, students ended the year with 63-68 percent of learning gains in reading relative to a typical year, and 37-50 percent in mathematic. Percentages were even lower for 5th-7th graders. The study concludes that many children will go into the next school year an entire year behind in math. In a recent webinar, Alex Servello, manager of corporate responsibility at Verizon, predicted that there will be further disengagement in STEM disciplines (science, math, engineering & technology) when fall arrives.

An Ed Trust study from April indicated that 50 percent of low-income families were affected by the “digital divide,” a phrase used to describe families who lack the technology or high-speed Internet access.

“The picture is very uneven. Not all of our kids are getting access to the same things,” said Michael Casserly in a recent article in Education Week. Casserly leads an advocacy group for large districts, the Council of the Great City Schools, and hints at “a permanent underclass” of young people who lack the skills for work and civic responsibility. He shares that this is an inequity that “harms the national economy and offends one’s sense of moral equity.”

While the start of the next school year is just a few weeks away, there is still great uncertainty about what the school experience will look like. A recent USA Today survey showed that while a majority of teachers worried that distance learning is causing children to fall behind, they were nervous about returning to the classroom before a vaccine is available. Everyone is struggling with trying to balance the need for human connection in quality education and the safest way to do that. Fortunately, the same survey showed that 73 percent of parents and 64 percent of teachers believe that they will eventually be able to make up lost ground.

The concern is both how we as parents ensure our children are best equipped to continue thriving in the fall, and how we as one community can continue to address the equality gap and fix it so that all children, regardless of gender, race, class or ZIP code, receive a quality education. The key, many experts say, is to start by thinking of ways to build learning into the summer months.

“Summer learning should not be separate from summer fun,” said Holly Larrson, a math subject matter specialist from Texas Instruments. “Activities can be enjoyable while still adding educational value to a teenager’s summer.”

Learning can be built into several family activities, including vacations, grocery shopping, gardening, reading, and game nights. There are also several virtual options, including city and museum tours, cooking lessons, dance performances, and physical fitness sessions. We’ve included a few ideas on our Summer Learning Resources page.

Most of us are taking this new normal one day at a time, taking each day in chunks. Looking at family time, whether it is working toward finishing a puzzle, playing Monopoly, Boggle, and making a recipe together as major wins. Life in this way feels like the board game Chutes and Ladders, and summer is looking like another long “chute.” So as parents and educators all try to find some downtime and relax in the new era of social distancing, we are also racking our brains to find a few “ladders,” or strategies that can mitigate learning loss and help the kids and families who need an extra hand.

Duncan stressed the importance of having the federal government step up to help local communities that are facing severe funding cuts as a result of dipping income tax revenues. In his recent interview on Bloomberg TV, he shared that most school districts rely on about 90 percent of their funding from state and local government entities. Like many, Duncan remains optimistic, and he has been encouraged by the work that many people are doing to help those in need.

“The human part of this is extraordinary,” Duncan said. “The relationships, the care, the concern and the love that teachers, staff and administrators are showing over the long haul… that’s what changes lives, and that’s what gives me the most hope.”

Learn more about how you can help prevent the “summer slide” with some fun and educational activities on our Summer Learning Resources page.

Common Threads was founded in Chicago in 2003 by CEO Linda Novick O’Keefe, celebrity chef Art Smith and his husband, artist Jesus Salgueiro, as a way to bring under-resourced children together, help them celebrate different cultures and teach them about healthy nutrition. From its humble beginnings in a church basement, Common Threads now services children and families in 12 markets, including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Washington D.C., Miami, Pittsburgh, Austin, San Antonio, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Houston, El Paso and Erie. For more information, visit or search #CookingForLife on social media.

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