Pandemic Learning Loss

Is Summer School the Solution?

by Jill Eggleton
March 2021

COVID-19 came, an invisible thief. Silently and stealthily it infiltrated every corner of the globe, and it stole. It stole lives, it stole freedoms, it stole friendships, and it stole ‘learning time,’ a precious treasure of the young. 

A new meaning to ‘learning loss’

The theft of learning time translates to ‘learning loss,’ and while ‘learning loss’ is not a new buzzword in education, the COVID-19 thief has given it a new meaning. 

This invisible thief ignited fear, forcing school closures and disrupting the education of students worldwide. Students lost time—time to consolidate and practice skills learned and time to build new competencies. While this time loss affected most students, it has been especially detrimental to those of lowest overall achievement.

The social-emotional impact

The COVID-19 thief not only stole time; it stole teachers’ and students’ passion, motivation, and engagement—losses not so easily measured but of serious concern to learning growth.

Instead, it stirred up anxiety. Anxiety among parents who fear their child is below grade level. Anxiety for teachers who worry how to ‘bridge the gap,’ and anxiety for students who constantly hear they have lost something but are not sure what.

Are there positive gains?

Concerns are indeed a reality. However, putting aside the negatives, I think we should also consider what has been gained. What have students learned in their absence from school as they have known it? 

“I am confident they have learned a great deal—skills that can’t be measured by a test score.”

I am confident they have learned a great deal—skills that can’t be measured by a test score. Values, like resilience and contentment, gratitude, empathy, kindness, patience, and an appreciation of all that it means to be in a physical classroom environment with a teacher and their peers. 

These qualities are treasures of enormous value for students as this educational crisis begins to dissipate and educators search for ways to regain the effects of time lost in learning. 

Is summer school an antidote?

There is no definitive answer to this question, as I believe there are many and varied ideas. However, I do believe summer school can be a very real solution to the problem of learning stolen by COVID-19.

Summer school provides opportunities for students to bridge the gap of learning loss simply by providing extra time. And time is especially important for the vulnerable, disproportionately affected students who have been robbed of gains they could have and should have made.

What matters in summer school?

I’m not an expert in this area, having never experienced summer school as either a teacher or a student. But because of our current situation, I have given a great deal of thought to what really matters and what would be my focus, if I were to teach summer school.

“I believe most importantly, I would endeavor to ignite or reignite a passion for learning.”

I believe most importantly, I would endeavor to ignite or reignite a passion for learning.

A passion is something that can truly be lost and if it is lost, it will have an extremely detrimental effect on learning. I therefore would focus on learning that taps into the emotional part of the brain that motivates and engages students in the learning experience. 

Reading magic

And so, I would read aloud to my students every single day without fail—a huge variety of rich literature—weird and wild and wacky stories! Stories that whisper, stories that shout. Stories that reach out and grab the heart of the listener. 

As best-selling children’s author, Mem Fox, says, “There’s no doubt that reading aloud teaches. And there’s no doubt that little kids—and big ones—love being read aloud to.” In her book, Reading Magic, she goes on to relate this story about beloved Australian children’s author, Colin Thiele:

On flood days, when half the children couldn’t make it to school, the teacher—not wanting to “waste” her curriculum on so few children—would spend the day reading aloud. Flood days were magical for Colin. He claims he learned more about reading and writing by accident on those days than he did during the entire rest of the year.

I would read aloud with my students every single day without fail, the shared reading of rhythmical texts, and I would fill their heads with poetry—rhythmic gems, chosen wisely. 

I know without a shadow of a doubt that this shared reading will provide my students with a great deal of information about reading. They will build a storehouse of language, words, phrases, structures and grammar. And most importantly, it will tap into the emotional part of the brain to ignite their passion for reading. 

To not read daily to all children is to deny them one of the most basic and continuing motivations to literacy.

-Don Holdaway

If I were to teach summer school, I would model what a writer does. I would craft my own story in front of them—always short—that is the golden rule. I would motivate my students to write every day from their own life experiences, not on contrived, teacher-devised topics that make no connection to them. 

“It is not the quantity but the quality that makes writing burn.”

When students have the freedom to write from their own experiences, they are tapping into the emotional part of the brain. I would not expect or desire long, rambling writing, but rather short, succinct pieces. It is not the quantity but the quality that makes writing burn. 

These are but three of the learning experiences I believe matter, and I would be focusing on these consistently and persistently every day for the three, four, or six weeks of summer school. 

What about skills instruction?

Naturally, skills instruction would be important. However, always in the context of engaging learning experiences that connect to the emotional part of the brain, the part that is responsible for motivation and enhancing learning and memory.

And if any lessons did not connect emotionally, did not spark a passion for learning, I would ask, how can I creatively adapt them to do so? As Dr. Thomas Armstrong says, 

If teachers want their students to remember what they’re teaching them, the answer isn’t ‘just give them more hours, days, and weeks of skin-deep learning.’ The knowledge has to be connected with emotion, with their personal lives, with their memories, feelings, and experiences.

If I were teaching summer school, I would ask myself:

If I could achieve these things, then I believe summer school is a solution. My students would have a learning loss vaccine—an antidote against the invisible thief, COVID-19.


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