SAN ANTONIO, Texas — When Harlandale Independent School District in south San Antonio shuttered its doors in March amid the coronavirus pandemic, Melissa Casey’s first thought about her students was, “How are all of their basic needs going to be met?”
In the small district, 88 percent of schoolchildren are economically disadvantaged and almost 75 percent are at risk of dropping out. Harlandale administrators tried to smooth the transition to remote learning, lending students tablets, parking WiFi-enabled buses throughout the district and partnering with food banks to give out groceries and school supplies. Still, Casey, a Harlandale alum turned assistant superintendent, worried that the school shutdowns would lead to educational setbacks and add more instability to her students’ lives.
The pandemic has raised awareness of the many roles schools play — providing everything from free meals to Internet access and caring adults — and also of the learning losses that kids experience when they’re out of school. Even in a normal year, many educators see a “summer slide,” as students return to the classroom with diminished knowledge after the long break.
In April, the NWEA, a nonprofit assessment organization, published research showing some students could start school this fall nearly one year behind where they would normally be, part of a phenomenon referred to as the “Covid slide.” Not all students will be affected equally: Other research predicts that the losses will probably be greatest for low-income and Black and Hispanic students.
Nationally, educators and officials have floated one possible solution: year-round school. Under this model, which has existed in parts of the country for decades, schools operate with shorter, more frequent breaks throughout the year, rather than one lengthy summer vacation. While research on the model’s effectiveness is mixed, proponents argue that it keeps vulnerable students from falling farther behind and ensures that students benefit more consistently from school meals and other services.
In May, the Texas Education Agency advised schools to consider the model. The next month, Harlandale became one of the first districts to take that step when its board approved the move. However, a surge in coronavirus cases pushed back the district’s start and made the year-round schedule untenable for this year.
District leaders elsewhere in the country, including Richmond, Virginia, and Cincinnati, Ohio, have also talked about making the shift. Some states have made it easier for districts to modify their calendars to a year-round system: In Michigan, for example, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently included a measure allowing schools to move year-round in an executive order.
The year-round system began gaining popularity in the 1980’s, according to David Hornak, executive director of the National Association for Year-Round Education and superintendent of Holt Public Schools, in Michigan. In addition to mitigating learning loss, it was seen by school leaders as a way to ease overcrowding by enabling different groups of students to attend at different times, he said, and to help with teacher burnout through more frequent breaks. About 4 percent of K-12 students, or roughly 3 million, attend year-round schools, according to Hornak.
Schools use the additional breaks, called intersessions, to provide enrichment activities such as fine arts camps and field trips, or tutoring and other academic support designed to catch up students who have fallen behind. Some year-round schools require students to attend intersessions if they need the extra help, while in other places the programs are voluntary and open to all students.
Hornak said the shorter summers mean children do not lose as much knowledge between school years. Teachers can focus on teaching new material, instead of trying to catch students up, and kids who need extra help can receive it.
José Espinoza, superintendent of Socorro Independent School District in El Paso County, where year-round school has been in place since the 1990s, is a proponent of the calendar, but he said it is not a perfect solution.
In 2012, Socorro, a low-income district, was lagging behind other districts in Texas on new state assessments of academic readiness, despite using the model. Espinoza realized the district needed to better take advantage of the year-round calendar. Over the next few years, Socorro revamped its intersessions, creating the WIN Academy, a program that identified students who were struggling and helped them catch up through extra math and reading instruction. Students typically stayed with the same teachers for a period of years.
Last year, Socorro was given an “A” rating by the state.
Garland Independent School District in North Texas voted in June to approve the year-round system for two years. Susanna Russell, its chief leadership officer, said the model will help alleviate some of the lasting effects of the pandemic. It also creates flexibility if a student misses many classes because of illness or a loss in the family, or if a school has to shut down temporarily because of a coronavirus outbreak.
The district will offer remediation such as tutoring and other services, but it will also help students prepare for Advanced Placement and college entrance exams. There are plans for camps, possibly for fine arts, robotics or coding.
“We know our kids are going to be hit harder and they’re going to come up at a disadvantage,” Russell said of the district, where more than 60 percent of students are low-income. “And if our district’s core value is that we remove obstacles and barriers to provide access and opportunity, then we have no choice but to explore this.”
Tara Kristof, a parent of a sixth grader in the Dallas Independent School District, took note when nearby Garland made the switch.
Kristof said she has long been curious about the model because of the expense of summer camp and child care. She saves all year for the summers and leverages a flexible spending account through her job, but she said it would be easier if school breaks were spread out.
“Summer is 11 weeks,” Kristof said. “It is a big, big chunk of money all at once.”
Some districts use the year-round schedule creatively to ease the kinds of challenges parents like Kristof face. At year-round schools in Hornak’s district, for example, parents can opt to send their students to school during intersessions. It costs $100 a week, but that’s cheaper than local childcare options, according to Hornak.
The model can also help ease childhood hunger, which tends to rise during summer months as kids lose access to free school meals. When schools are open throughout the year, children can rely on these meals more consistently, a particularly urgent matter now given that the pandemic has left more families hungry.
But there are drawbacks. One concern with the system is the expense: Most teachers’ contracts don’t cover them to work during intersessions, and school facilities cost money to keep open. However, Hornak said districts are typically able to cover the expenses through federal funding for high-poverty districts, or by charging small fees for students who opt in to intersession.
Administrators for Socorro and Garland said they’ve been able to pay for the program with federal funds as well as dollars the state allocated in the last legislative session for districts that are adding extra days.
When districts consider going year-round, they sometimes face pushback, most of it focused on the disruption to summer traditions. Families plan reunions or vacations, schools host band or athletic camps, and teenagers and teachers take summer jobs.
But while some Harlandale parents and teachers initially bristled at the idea of going year-round, Casey said they warmed up to it after learning more about the model. Russell said a parent survey showed significant support for the move. Espinoza said people in his community are happy with the year-round system.
While Harlandale won’t be going year-round this fall, Casey said the model is under consideration for next year. After all, the full impact of the “Covid slide” likely won’t be felt until students return to face-to-face instruction – and when that might happen is a big unknown in much of the country.
In Harlandale, students will start the school year online. Later in the fall, if cases drop, families will be able to choose between virtual or in-person classes for the rest of the semester.
Casey said that once her teachers are face-to-face with students, the learning losses will become clear. “We’re going to know,” she said. She expects it will be difficult to see students struggling to read the same material or perform the same equations they learned previously.
“That reality is going to be very profound for people,” she said. “I hope that’s not the case, but I think it’s likely.”
This story about year-round school was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.