That’s right: summer break. While adults must keep up with the hustle and bustle of their everyday lives, kids get to take time away from the classroom. But for some, this time outside of school can contribute to what’s called summer slide—i.e., the learning loss students experience during their summer vacations because they’re not in a classroom.
According to the National Summer Learning Association, nine out of 10 teachers spend at least three weeks re-teaching lessons at the start of the school year. It’s an annual concern, made even worse this year because of the pandemic. Remote school affected learning in a tremendous way, with the impacts still felt by students.
“I think because of COVID, kids got out of practice sitting at a desk, knowing what they had to do, focusing long enough to get it done, turning it in, and staying organized. They just really struggled with those things coming back from the pandemic,” says Ann Dolin, president of Fairfax-based learning service Educational Connections and a former longtime teacher at Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS).
Socioeconomic status is also at play when it comes to summer slide. During summer vacation, loss in reading skills increases as household income level decreases, according to Fairfax County Public Library (FCPL).
Luckily, there’s more than one way to keep your kid’s mind sharp this summer in Northern Virginia, from signing them up for one of the region’s educational summer camps to taking them to the library.
Forget the Term “Summer School.”
Educators note it’s important to frame summer learning in a way that both keeps it engaging for your child and does not make them feel like they’re being left behind.
“We try not to think about what we do as ‘summer school.’ That term is really outdated; it has negative connotations, and that’s why years ago, we began to refer to our programs as summer learning,” says Levi Folly, the summer learning manager at FCPS. “Because we’re more concerned about moving kids forward than trying to deal with what’s behind them, helping build their capacity, re-engage them in learning, so that they’re ready for the new year. So to me, that’s an important distinction.”
The school system’s summer academic programs will be taking place in July, Folly says. They are for students in kindergarten through grade 12, and are taught by FCPS instructors. For three weeks, students are in the classroom for about 4 to 5 hours per day, depending on grade level. Folly notes that schools typically reach out to families during the spring if they believe summer learning would be beneficial to their student.
“Inherent in all of those programs across all those levels will be some attention given to social-emotional learning and the well-being of the students,” Folly says. He notes that FCPS recognizes it’s been a trying couple of years.
Ellen Agosta, a program manager in FCPS’s Office of Special Education Instruction, echoes this sentiment, noting that summer learning is not a time when students should feel punished or like they’re wasting time doing nothing, but hopefully feel excited to be there.
“I think as a county, we really try [to make sure] the curriculum and the materials that teachers use during the summer are fun and engaging, and really do try to tap into other avenues for students to progress,” she says.
For instance, math workbooks, which can feel more like a punishment than a fun activity, might stay put in the desk drawers, says Ann Bremner, director of lower-school mathematics at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School. “We have to be careful of the type of practice and reinforcement [we use],” she says.
Students “Slide” in Different Ways.
It’s not just academic programs that can keep students from experiencing summer slide. Kathleen Miller, a media-outreach specialist at FCPS, notes that the school system offers summer activities, such as art camps, that can help keep a child’s mind engaged.
These sorts of extracurricular activities are a great asset to academics, and summer experiences usually make for good social interaction, says University of Connecticut associate professor Rachael Gabriel. She notes that the social element was particularly lost for younger children during the pandemic, as older students typically have more electronic access to their peers—through things like texting and social media—than elementary-aged students.
Gabriel worries that the term “learning loss,” especially for children who have had to pivot in their learning thanks to the pandemic, implies the only way kids can ever learn is if it has to do with studying for standardized exams—but there’s more to keeping the mind sharp than just test prep.
Like socialization, learning loss may manifest differently among varying age groups.
“Because I’m mostly with the upper-level students, I would see the effect of forgetting things—more [so] the details. Because the class was at a high level, it was complicated; there were a lot of parts to it. And over the summer, they forget the parts,” says Dr. Alan Whiting, who works for C2 Education of Fairfax, a local affiliate of a national tutoring and test-prep service. “I suspect in the lower-level students, it would be more [that] they have forgotten how to concentrate, how to sit down and work, and attack schoolwork, rather than the details.”
His colleagues at C2, Jonathan Chan, agrees. “I would say that high school students actually will probably lose more content than middle schoolers and younger kids,” he says.
The challenges with summer slide are not just experienced differently between age groups, but among students with different learning abilities.
“We provide extended school-year services, which is a federally mandated program that serves students with disabilities in grades pre-K through 12, whose individual educational program (IEP) team determines that without these services, the gains that a student makes during the regular school year would be significantly jeopardized. So, it really is about maintenance of skills that they’ve gained during the school year,” Agosta says of how summer slide impacts students with disabilities.
“Of course, we try to make it a time for students where we address their IEP goals, but oftentimes, that also includes that social-emotional component for those students as well,” she says.
How Libraries Can Help
For those who may be concerned about financing tutoring services or are not involved with any particular school’s academic program, Northern Virginia’s libraries offer a place where children and their families can go to avoid the summer slide. Every summer, FCPL hosts its Summer Reading Adventure (SRA), designed to involve the whole family.
“The library is really hoping to ensure [kids] don’t have that loss of reading skills over the summer,” says FCPL director Jessica Hudson. The SRA is a structured program across all county libraries, but every branch hosts its own events that best serve the surrounding community, she says.
The program offers incentives for students who read a certain number of books or for a certain number of minutes over the summer, with past prizes including things like coupon books offering deals at local businesses. Hudson notes that there are different reading milestones for different ages, and that each student has a different approach to reading.
Summer is a time when students typically have more room to do things they enjoy—and reading can be one of those things, says Hudson. For her, “summer reading is pleasure reading,” when children can read books not as assignments, but because they enjoy them.
“When students have an opportunity to read a book of their choice,” she says, “that is such a wonderful, magical moment.”
How to Recognize the Summer Slide:
Look for patterns. “In general, if you’ve seen your child really resist doing something, it means that it’s a pain point for them. So if you’ve seen a child really resist math, then it’s probably fair to say that student may struggle a little bit in math, because it’s harder for them. So, over the summer, you want to make math as fun as possible,” says Dolin.
Ask your child questions. “Just checking in to see what kids have been doing with their time” can be useful, says Chan.
How to Keep Kids Learning:
Do activities consistently. Maybe your child is a reader. In terms of keeping the mind sharp, it’s better to curl up with a book for a certain number of minutes every day than to read for hours just once in a while, says Dolin. “It doesn’t have to be intense, but it needs to be consistent.”
“Everybody’s different. But you do have to keep doing it—for reading, at least a couple of times a week over the entire summer, not just a couple of weeks at the beginning and letting it go. And not just a couple of weeks at the end in a state of panic,” Whiting says.
Use the buddy system. “I think it’s important to encourage kids to sign up [for summer learning activities] with their friends … because it just increases their motivation to actually go,” says Chan.
Play games! Chan recommends educational apps on a phone or tablet that can engage students through games, and Bremner says that board and card games are a great tool for students to keep up on math skills.