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Amid coronavirus crisis, summer learning is more essential than ever for students

When and how students learn has taken on new meaning since the COVID-19 pandemic hit our communities. The shift to remote learning was so swift that many school districts are still working to address the needs of the students who don’t have access to the internet or the necessary tools to complete their schoolwork. The digital divide is real and putting our most vulnerable students at risk of slipping further behind their peers who do have access. Action taken by state and local leaders in the coming week and months, including funding decisions around technology capabilities and expanded learning opportunities, will inform how communities address learning loss and prepare for students to return to school in the fall. To that end, Team Kentucky is getting critical help from innovators across the state, including afterschool and summer learning professionals.

Here in the Bluegrass State, the afterschool community has been called on by medical providers, business leaders, non-profit organizations, government officials, parents and others to engage in new ways, contribute expertise, and meet local needs. 21st Century Community Learning Center programs have spent the past few months providing exploratory enrichment activities online to provide some fun for kids in the midst of a scary time. In Covington, out-of-school time professionals are providing porch drop-offs of house hold supplies and learning activities while also checking on the well-being of students and families. Ronda Cox, a teacher from Spencer County Middle School and sponsor of the Maker Club, has been using the club’s 3D printer to make personal protective equipment for local nursing homes. And, childcare workers across the Commonwealth are risking their personal safety to ensure children of essential workers have a safe environment to learn and play while their parents and guardians work. These individuals and countless more give me hope.

As a long-time advocate for afterschool and summer learning programs, I know the last ring of the school bell each day or the final NTI assignment check-in does not mean learning stops. It merely signals a change in “location” — a different building, gym, studio or now – a different room in the house. These programs ensure that students do not get left behind academically but they also provide an invaluable escape for many students where they find their passion for art or start to believe that they can be a scientist. As we look toward recovery, it will be critical to help students re-engage and catch up on hours of lost learning time. In addition to the annual battle of summer learning loss; academic content that was not delivered due to school closures can best be supplemented by afterschool and summer learning programs. Learning loss will be only be accelerated for students experiencing poverty without the resources to connect digitally. However, with increased investments from government and the philanthropic community and demonstrated expertise in keeping students engaged in learning and supported socially and emotionally; educators, program leaders and mentors from summer learning programs can help carry them through to the fall.

As parents and guardians return to work, afterschool and summer learning programs will be an essential part of their support system. Before the pandemic, these programs helped parents to sustain their work as they knew their kids were safe and engaged. In fact, there was considerable unmet demand: in Kentucky more than 260,000 kids were waiting for an available program. Not surprisingly, demand is higher today than at any point since the creation of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) program nearly two decades ago. The 21st CCLC program has enabled many more afterschool and summer learning programs, both urban and rural, to serve our Commonwealth’s young people and provide them with the knowledge, skills, and exposure to mentors and professionals that will enable them to thrive. We need increased funding for this vital program and greater flexibility to meet the needs of local communities in response to these unprecedented times.

In the aftermath of this pandemic, there will be no shortage of those offering assessments of where society did well and where systems failed the public, including in education. In particular, there is no question the role of afterschool and summer learning providers in supporting parents, educators and whole communities will be understood in new and meaningful ways. As well, the need to expand their reach and explore new ways to deliver and support learning will be essential. For now, the needs are immediate, urgent and the call for nimble organizations to shift resources and solve what requires fixing is loud. On that note, afterschool and summer learning programs are responding quickly and in innovative ways.

In the long term, the question for Kentucky’s providers, policy makers and decision makers is how best to utilize the full range of resources available. It will be important in the coming months to ponder that question and come together around concrete solutions for communities across our great Commonwealth and in advance of the 2020-21 school year.