EDITORIAL: Pandemic or not, rethink school time

York Dispatch editorial board

The year-old coronavirus pandemic has left no aspect of Pennsylvania life untouched and no segment of the population unscathed.

But one consequence may have been obscured, perhaps, by the daily life-or-death struggles, the economic upheaval and the political pushback to public-health best practices: Widespread learning loss in the state’s public schools.

This is no knock against educators, who have pivoted to remote instruction, created hybrid coursework and taught on-site amid challenges including social distancing and masks.

And it’s no reflection on students, who have labored with their studies despite seeing their educational routines — like just about every other aspect of their young lives — uprooted by the challenges of a once-in-a-century public-health crisis.

Still, it comes as little surprise that overall student learning is suffering; the distractions and concerns of the past year haven’t exactly contributed to focusing on the sciences, calculus or a foreign language. And ongoing school closures aren’t helping.

York Academy Regional Charter School sixth-grader Tipton Brenner holds a sign she made while greeting teachers during the "12 Days Drive Through" at the school in York City Monday, Dec. 21, 2020. The appreciation event for school staff featured 12 gift stations for participants. Bill Kalina photo

More:Closer Look: A year into COVID pandemic, York County teachers face exhaustion

More:Local districts consider summer school options to make up for learning losses

More:Some York County schools to close while teachers receive the COVID-19 vaccine

More:More milestones missed? York County school districts unsure of 2021 proms, graduations

In response, local school leaders, including those at the York City School District, are looking at expanding their summer school programs this year as a way to help students catch up. Instead of the usual three weeks of summer classes in the city school district, for example, officials are considering as many as eight or nine weeks of supplemental instruction.

Expanding classes through the summer is a wise and necessary conversation — one that, frankly, should have been held a long time ago.

Educators have been grappling with what’s known as summer learning loss for decades. On average, studies show, grade-school students can lose as much as 20% of their school-year gains during the long summer break. Younger students suffer more than older students; less well-to-do students suffer more than classmates from families with higher incomes.

The recommended remedies to this summer slide include keeping students intellectually engaged when school is out through reading, creative play and plenty of time away from screens both large and small.

While these strategies can be effective, they can also be difficult to enforce for low-income working parents — the same parents who also are likely to face the highest hurdles in providing education-enriching cultural opportunities like family trips or visits to museums.

Left ignored is the root cause of summer learning loss: the annual three-month discontinuation of class time.

The current schedule, while not exactly the remnant of the agrarian-centric earliest days of public education it is often portrayed as, nonetheless reflects changes and compromises that were made, for the most part, more than century ago.

An update is needed. While something as radical as year-round schooling is neither practical nor preferable, adhering to the current schedule out of little more than the force of habit is neither desirable nor defensible.

Pandemic-prompted concerns about educational backsliding provide a welcome impetus for revisiting the issue — especially seeing as the effects will take more than a few extra weeks of class this summer to rectify.

“The idea of trying to mitigate loss is not going to be a one-and-done thing,” York City School District Superintendent Andrea Berry told those attending a Feb. 17 school board meeting. “It’s going to be a multi-year process.”

With that in mind, educators should look beyond the immediate crisis and explore longer-term strategies.

The coronavirus pandemic has created its share of challenges, but it has also generated unexpected opportunities. The chance to rethink — and readjust — long-outdated academic schedules is one that local educators should take full advantage of.