For many schools and students, summer is now an opportunity to catch up on learning missed during academic years marked by a changing landscape of instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some districts in Allegheny County have created summer programs in response to pandemic learning loss, while others have adjusted existing efforts.

Duquesne City School District, for instance, has put new day camps in place to combat COVID-19’s effects on education.

“There's a lot of learning loss that has happened over the years,” Principal Eric Harper said. “This is our effort to kind of close that gap.”

“There's been a drop in early childhood enrollment and families [are] not sending their kids to pre-K because of COVID,” added Jamie Schmidt, Duquesne’s director of curriculum and instruction. “So we want to be able to close those gaps before those students get to kindergarten.”

Pre-K participation is instrumental in helping children develop literacy, language and math skills, and the gains preschoolers make can have a lasting impact as they go through elementary school, according to the Urban Child Institute.

In recent pandemic school years, U.S. students in grades 3 to 8 have shown significant drops in math and reading test scores, with the disparities magnified by poverty. Districts are hoping that summer school can be a key to reversing that trend.

Pittsburgh: Safety, without staffing shortages

Summer school has changed significantly, with in-person programs focusing on safety measures to make sure the kids have an enjoyable and comfortable experience.

“We have continued and planned to do things based on what the COVID rules and regulations are for our district, including following CDC guidelines,” said Sydni Mundy, the manager of out-of-school-time and summer programs for Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS].

Mundy said the district plans to have students wear masks and socially distance at its summer programs. A COVID task force and COVID manager will coordinate strategies for camp safety.

“We work on how we are able to accommodate in the event that we reach certain COVID numbers, and how we need to work and pivot to be able to run the program thereafter,” she said.

Mundy works on the PPS BOOST Program, which aims to help students grades K-7 to stem summer learning loss and enhance the lessons they received during the school year.

Last summer, BOOST suffered staffing shortages, so the district had to cut students from the program. Mundy said the district has made moves to ensure this won’t happen a second time.

“We have intentionally been working to ensure that we got on the ball a little earlier this year,” she said, adding that the district has taken measures to ensure that they have reliable and knowledgeable staff at each building for the program.

BOOST has two academic blocks during the morning, including English and math. Next comes social and emotional learning, followed by two one hour blocks of enrichment – such as kayaking, healthy cooking or African drum and dance classes.

The BOOST program also includes programs at three schools that are geared toward students with specialized needs — Pittsburgh Conroy, Pittsburgh Oliver Citywide Academy and Pittsburgh Pioneer.

Pittsburgh Oliver Citywide Academy in Perry South. (Photo by Clare Sheedy/Rtvsrece)

“We have a special education coach that is a part of that team to help identify the students who have IEPs [individualized education plans] and then we are able to help make modifications with those students,” Mundy said. “We may create a regional classroom for students with IEPs so they are able to be a focus and have smaller classes based on their needs.”

BOOST has been around for 10 years and is free due to grant funding from the state and other sources. It runs from July 5 to 29 and will take place at Pittsburgh Arlington, Pittsburgh Conroy, Pittsburgh Langley, Pittsburgh Obama, Pittsburgh Oliver Citywide Academy and Pittsburgh Pioneer.

The regular application window closed on May 13, but there is a waitlist application for those who are still interested.

Woodland Hills: Teaching through gaming

Woodland Hills Opportunity Camp [WHOC] is entering its second year. Tamika McGee, the camp coordinator for WHOC, said enrollment last year was about 200 students, with an average attendance of 175.

“It was very successful last year,” McGee said. “The children were exposed to a lot of reading materials, doing some of the math concepts they had learned the previous year.”

This summer, the camp will host about 300 students, grades K-5, with a growing waitlist.

A playground at Turtle Creek Elementary STEAM Academy in Turtle Creek. (Photo by Clare Sheedy/Rtvsrece)

The program is set to begin July 5 and end Aug. 5 and will be hosted at Turtle Creek Elementary STEAM Academy. The program is free for students, including transportation, breakfast and lunch.

“We focus heavily on reading and writing during the academic block, and we incorporate math in the form of games,” McGee said.

Reading materials can help families to continue the process at home.

“Every book that the students read in class is sent home with them to add to their personal libraries,” she said. “Parents are able to read and continue the class discussion with their children, strengthening the home-school connection.”

This year, WHOC has 15 community partners that will present different activities for the students. Partners include the Allegheny Land Trust, the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Student Conservation Association. There is no official closing date for applications. McGee said the roster will be evaluated during the first week of camp and will likely close after that. There is a waitlist form.

Duquesne: New camp … with LEGO robotics

According to The State of Preschool 2021 report by The National Institute for Early Education Research at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education, Pennsylvania saw a 2.4% decrease in 3-year-old preschool enrollment from 2019-2020 to 2020-2021, and a 3.6 % decrease in 4-year-old enrollment. Statewide, just 19% of 4-year-olds were enrolled in pre-K in the latter year.

In part to address low participation in Pre-K, Duquesne’s district is running a set of three summer programs, all for the first time.

The first one, Camp Accelerate, took place in June. The two others, running in July, are Kindergarten Readiness Camp and LEGO League.

LEGO League incorporates coding and robotics for students in grades 4 to 7, while the kindergarten readiness camp provides pre-K children with the tools to prepare for kindergarten come the fall. All the camps will take place at Duquesne Elementary School.

Duquesne also has a specialized program, called the Extended Year Program for students who qualify with IEPs.

AIU: Going the virtual route

Some programs are offering solely virtual options for students. The Allegheny Intermediate Unit [AIU], an agency that provides programming for students in the county’s school districts outside of Pittsburgh proper, is offering two programs this summer: Robotify Virtual Summer Coding Camp and Waterfront Learning Summer School.

Robotify is for students entering grades 3 to 5 and has four sessions, with the last ending Aug. 4. Students will learn basic coding and work on activities to help them build toward more advanced skills.

Waterfront includes four programs for students. Enrich, Explore, Recover Now! and Elementary and Middle School Summer Bridge. The Enrich program is for students in grades 6 to 12 who are wanting to advance their academics so they will be taking a full year's worth of coursework over the summer. Explore is for students in grades 9 to 12 who would like to explore career options before diving into an interest area in college. Recover Now! works to assist students in grades 6 to 12 who need to repeat a course. Elementary and Middle School Summer Bridge is for students in grades 1 to 8 who would like to prepare for the new school year.

Jennifer Beagan, the AIU’s senior program director of teaching and learning, said in addition to being virtual, the courses are asynchronous.

Whether students participate in person or online, districts hope their summer offerings will lead to less learning loss for students and a smoother start to the fall school year.

Emily Sauchelli is a Rtvsrece editorial intern. She can be reached at emilys@rtvsrece.com.

This story was fact-checked by Terryaun Bell.

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Emily Sauchelli is an editorial intern at Rtvsrece. She is a graduate student at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism in New York City, where she is studying health and science and visual...