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Remote learning was tough for many. Will summer school be different?

Educators say their spring experience gave insights to improve remote learning in the coming months.

Getting students to participate during a spring of remote learning wasn’t easy for Lacoochee Elementary fourth-grade teacher Tracy Taggert.

Some of them didn’t have computers or, if they did, couldn’t figure out how to use them. Printers to make copies of assignments were a luxury for many.

Several had no internet access, or spotty cell phone data at best. One of Taggert’s students at the rural northeastern Pasco County school could connect only when at her aunt’s house, which generally lasted an hour at 8 p.m.

Then there were the children for whom school was not the priority, as their families struggled to make ends meet. Others were embarrassed to get on a video conference for any number of reasons, ranging from what might be happening behind them to simply being shy.

Lacoochee Elementary School teacher Tracy Taggert [Courtesy of Tracy Taggert]

“We would use every means possible” to get the children engaged, Taggert said, listing phone calls, parking lot meetings and home visits among them.

She recalled offering a lesson on fractions while shopping in Walmart, and contacting a child’s neighbors and cousins in an effort to locate the student. Even with all that, Taggert said, the fourth-grade team had regular communication with just over half the group.

Their experience begs the question: Can a summer program that depends largely on the same methods reach the children who didn’t participate in the spring?

“The world is kind of caught between ongoing social distancing and quarantine measures — which make it really hard to operate a summer program — and the limitations of digital learning,” said Matthew Boulay, chief executive of the National Summer Learning Association. “It’s a really difficult, challenging time.”

Schools will find out quickly if their plans make a dent. Summer classes begin Monday for many children, and districts throughout the Tampa Bay region have targeted thousands of youngsters considered most in need of remedial lessons for the added attention.

They include hundreds who rarely or never submitted work during the fourth quarter, as well as thousands more who either failed a class or had been diagnosed as too far behind where the standards said they should be.

To meet the demand, districts have refined their springtime model. They’ve taken steps to give students more personalized attention from their teachers, for instance, and focused on live lessons rather than the self-paced approach.

A key to the preparations was to figure out “how do you make it so that it’s different and it specifically meets the needs of the students,” said Kevin Hendrick, Pinellas County associate superintendent for instruction.

For starters, no one suggests that online learning is better than face to face.

“Learning online compensates somewhat, but for many subjects and for many students, it is not a complete substitute for classroom instruction,” said Duke University psychology professor Harris Cooper, an expert on school homework and learning losses.

That’s why some of the summer initiatives aim to more closely replicate a classroom environment, despite being conducted from afar.

In Pinellas, for example, many of the classes will be conducted live rather than having children work on their own schedule. Teachers will have smaller numbers of students they’re responsible for helping — as few as five in many instances — and the length of time everyone is expected to work together will be much shorter than a regular school day.

After those lessons, the groups will break so that the teachers can meet individually with each student. And, unlike past summers, students and teachers will be paired according to their regular school rather than being mixed together.

“We thought it was important to keep the kids with a familiar teacher,” Hendrick said, noting the model also allows the connections to remain once the school year resumes.

Hillsborough County schools will take a similar approach. To assist students with access, the district continues to distribute laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to anyone who asks for those, as well.

At the same time, they’re looking to other ways of providing support to students.

One initiative involves grab-and-go backpacks filled with books and paper lessons that children can do at home and then talk to teachers via phone. Leaders are also toying with the idea of taking retrofitted school buses into certain communities to create “small learning environments” for teachers and students to have mini-classes in person, said Terry Connor, deputy superintendent for instruction.

“We’re trying to be creative,” Connor said. “A lot of people are over the virtual at this point.”

Such efforts could help many children get closer to meeting their grade-level expectations, said Cooper, the Duke professor. They’re definitely better than nothing, he said.

But at the same time, everyone still must acknowledge that schools cannot force students to attend the summer offerings. And for those who didn’t take part in the spring remote learning, it “would be counterintuitive” to think many will show up for the summer, said Michael Cloyd, principal of Sunlake High School in Pasco County.

“All we can do is reach out and try to remove whatever barriers are stopping a kid,” Cloyd said.

For many, summertime could prove even more difficult than the fourth quarter, said Latoya Jordan, the principal since 2013 at Lacoochee Elementary, where more than 90 percent of the students live in poverty. Parents who have been out of work because of stay home orders might be headed back to jobs as the economy reopens, she said, leaving even less time for children to study.

Some parents have committed to having their children participate in summer school, Jordan said. But for others who might need it, “I haven’t come up with a way.”

That’s why what schools do in the fall, when attendance is compulsory, takes on critical importance, Cooper said.

He recommended extra instruction, in smaller groups if possible, for the children who need it most. Lengthening the school year to provide extra time to catch up would help, he added. And a close analysis of each students’ knowledge base must occur, so lessons can be directed based on achievement.

“It’s really no different from any strategies to address the achievement gap,” he said.

The main difference is that the learning losses this year are expected to be worse than usual, said Boulay, of the National Summer Learning Association. And with the distancing over several months, educators will need to be attuned to students’ social and emotional needs, too.

To overcome the obstacles, schools will have to cooperate with other agencies and organizations in new ways to get meaningful results, added Aaron Dworkin, the association’s chief executive. Now is the right time, he added, because the nation’s attention is focused on this problem like never before.

“It’s an urgent moment for children and families, and we’re probably still only at the beginning of this,” Boulay said.

Taggert, the fourth-grade teacher, said she’s confident her students and others like them will make it through.

“We’re going to hopefully have in place all the supports those kids need to help them,” she said. “I feel optimistic that it’s all going to work out.”

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