As more kids across Kentucky head back to school this week, the Kentucky Out-of-School Alliance (KYOSA) is taking a moment to reflect on this past summer as it comes to a close. The summer of 2021 was perhaps one of the most important ever, representing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand access to summer learning and enrichment programs to children in Kentucky, many of whom are from families with low incomes, who have, for too long, been sidelined when it comes to being able to take part in structured summer experiences.
A study released in May 2021 that looks in-depth at summer learning in 2019 and 2020 finds that, before the pandemic and the passage of the American Rescue Plan (ARP), student participation in summer programs remained low, despite soaring demand and parent satisfaction. In 2019, more than 179,000 children would have been enrolled in a program if one were available to them, according to Kentucky After 3PM: Time for a Game-Changing Summer, With Opportunity and Growth for All of America’s Youth.
Commissioned by the Afterschool Alliance and conducted by Edge Research, the new study finds that 41% of families surveyed report at least one of their children participated in a summer program in 2019, up from 30% in 2013 and just 15% in 2008. A total of 111,884 students – or 16% of the state’s K-12 children – participated in a structured summer experience in 2019. But the parents of more than 179,000 children in Kentucky were unable to enroll their children in the summer programs they had hoped to find due to barriers involving cost, transportation, and lack of available programs or slots. Children in lower-income families were most likely to have been left behind.
The passage of the ARP in March 2021, with a 20% local education agency (LEA) set aside specifically for summer, afterschool, and learning recovery, represented a monumental and historic opportunity to, once and for all, close these gaps while helping kids re-engage, recharge, and rebound from the pandemic. As the 2020-2021 school year came to a close, program providers across the state – YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs, local Parks & Recreation departments, public libraries, nonprofits, private organizations, and now public schools and school districts – were working harder than ever before with the aim of serving as many kids as possible this year.
Yet, ongoing staff shortages and bureaucratic red tape that made it difficult for providers to access or tap into federal recovery funds often made this goal difficult, if not impossible, to realize. While, according to this study, 79% of existing programs in Kentucky still planned on serving children and families this summer, more than 8 in 10 providers (82%) reported, back in February and March of 2021, that they were still concerned about their program’s long-term funding and future due to COVID-19.
On the surface, it would seem that all of the recovery dollars flowing to Kentucky would have easily solved these issues. But because, historically, most summer programs in Kentucky operate independently of the public school system or the Kentucky Division of Regulated Child Care (due to current state licensing exemptions for school-age programs and providers), only a small minority of providers were able to take advantage of the recovery funds flowing either to LEAs or licensed child care programs. And schools in particular, after spending the last twelve months just trying to stay afloat amid one of the most devastating storms in history, now found themselves racing against the clock to try to figure out how they could use the funds coming down the pipeline to serve kids over the summer now, too.
To try to get a sense of what Kentucky’s summer program landscape would look like this year, KYOSA quickly developed and sent out a survey to a diverse range of program providers, including schools. Over 100 providers responded to the survey, with over 50% of all summer programs captured in the survey categorized as being overseen or operated by a public K-12 school or district. All program-level data collected were made available to the public on our 2021 Summer Program Map.
The top five takeaways from KYOSA’s 2021 Summer Program Survey are as follows:
- A majority of summer programs (74%) reported that they planned to only serve students in person this summer, while roughly 1 in 5 (22%) planned to operate on a hybrid model. Very few programs (3%) stated that they would be only offering virtual programming, while 1% remained undecided at the time they completed the survey.
- COVID relief funding targeted towards LEAs likely gave rise to many new summer opportunities for kids across Kentucky in 2021. Roughly 1 in 5 programs responding to the survey (13%) stated that they were a new program serving students for the first time.
- 3 in 4 kids (77%) who attended a summer program in 2021 had access to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning opportunities, while 54% received additional academic instruction to help mitigate learning loss caused by the pandemic. Other popular summer program activities this year included: creative arts (81%), recreational sports (65%), health education (46%), and social-emotional learning (SEL) (37%).
- While a number of programs planned on offering social-emotional learning (SEL) and mental health programming this summer (37% and 21%, respectively), more work is needed to ensure that all providers have the tools and resources necessary to provide these critical services.
- Cost and transportation continue to pose barriers to participation, especially for low-income families who do not own or have access to a car, or live in communities where there are few, if any, no- or low-cost options available. Among fee-based programs that charge by the week, the average weekly cost per child for full-time enrollment was $139.77, not taking into account sibling and other types of discounts. So, 10-12 weeks of full-time summer care could easily run a working family of four with two school-age children upwards of $3,000 in a state where the median per capita income is just $28,178. Only 32% programs stated that they were able to provide transportation, even though over half of all respondents represented summer programs overseen or operated by public K-12 schools and districts.
As schools reopen this fall amid the current crisis caused by the Delta variant, children could very well continue to experience school closures and extended quarantines well into the 2021-2022 school year. Now more than ever, it is more important that we, as a community and a Commonwealth, continue to work hard to close these access gaps that continue hit low-income families especially hard, particularly over the summer.