After another wave of school closures because of COVID-19, reaching the end of the academic year without further disruptions must be an overriding priority. Yet even if that modest goal is met, America’s youth face learning deficits that could take years to overcome. Preventing further damage will require schools to provide much more instruction for struggling students, even if it means cutting summer short.

Reading, writing and rigorous summertime curriculum. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal, file

The cost of doing so shouldn’t be understated. In 2021, about 13 percent of public school students attended district-provided summer school. Considering how many U.S. students are performing below grade level, a minimum goal should be to double that number. Nationwide, that would cost at least $20 billion, with large districts accounting for much of the spending. To ensure that investment is productive, districts need to start planning now – by identifying students in greatest need, developing curricula to reinforce what they’ve already learned and recruiting teachers willing to work through the summer for bonus pay.

The shift to remote learning early in the pandemic wreaked havoc on students. Going into the 2021 school year, they were, on average, five months behind in math and nearly as deficient in reading. Black students and those in low-income school districts suffered even more – and there’s every indication that achievement gaps are growing. A McKinsey & Co. report estimates that the diminished earning potential of these students could cost the U.S. economy as much as $188 billion annually once they enter the workforce.

Reversing those trends is a matter of national urgency. Some districts have used federal COVID-relief funds to expand tutoring services for disadvantaged students, but such programs aren’t adequate to the scale of the crisis. All students need more concentrated instructional time and fewer extended breaks from learning. Adding days to the current academic year and moving up the start of the next one would help, while also limiting the effects of summer learning loss, which can cause students to forget as much as 25 percent of what they learned the previous year.

For children in greatest need, districts should require full-time summer school that blends academics with recreational activities aimed at bolstering social and emotional health. Schools should provide bonuses to teachers and staff to work through the summer, as districts in South Carolina, Virginia, Texas and other places did last year. They should also hire more part-time instructors, including retired teachers and college and graduate students. Explaining the value of extended school, especially to skeptical parents, will be critical.

None of this will come cheap. Keeping schools open will require more funding to maintain facilities, provide meals and pay support staff. The good news is that states have spent only a small portion of the $122 billion in federal funding provided by last year’s COVID-relief bill. Partnering with community groups to provide enrichment programs for part of the day could keep staffing expenses down, while consolidating facilities where summer classes are held could reduce other fixed costs. Moreover, investing in added instruction now will yield savings over time, by making it easier for districts to offer summer programs in the future, reducing students’ need for remedial classes and lowering their risks of dropping out.

Beyond this summer, the Biden administration should launch a more visible campaign to combat pandemic learning loss. State and local education officials should be encouraged to take bolder steps to increase instruction time, track student achievement and expand the most effective strategies – including Saturday “academies” like those created by the school district in Hartford, Connecticut. The pandemic might also offer an opportunity to rethink the wisdom of summer vacations more broadly, as Washington state is doing.

For now, it’s essential to simply get kids back on track. The pandemic has caused deep and potentially lasting damage not just to student achievement but to the public school system itself. Extending the school year and ensuring that all students get the instruction they need are the first steps toward repairing it.

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