It’s an annual tradition: Schoolkids counting down the days until summer vacation. It means camp, outdoor activities, more time with friends, and most importantly, a multi-month break from school. But all of that could go out the window this year due to COVID.
That’s not hyperbole, either. State legislators are voicing that keeping schools open this summer is being seriously considered to make up for any loss of education that may have happened this year. Deputy state secretary of education Matt Stem said summer school is “absolutely one space many districts are looking at.”
Clarice Schillinger, who has an eighth-grader in the Hatboro-Horsham school district, says mandating summer school isn’t doable. One reason is a practical matter. “Many schools, including my daughter’s, don’t have air conditioning,” she said. “They’re built in the 1800s and 1900s where they can not accommodate summer schools.”
Schillinger also lamented taking away a break from kids after the difficult year they’ve had. “Haven’t we given our children enough change? Haven’t they been through enough this entire year?”
“My initial thought is for elementary school, that’s ridiculous,” said Stephanie DeVito, parent of second and fourth-graders in the Abington School District, on the idea of schools being open during summer. She even said she couldn’t see teachers allowing that to happen, adding “there’s still so much time between now and the summer” to improve current conditions so summer school won’t be necessary.
One way to do that is through tutoring sponsored by the school district, DeVito believes. “There’s got to be some way to do tutoring for those who are struggling, going toward getting failing grades.”
DeVito also said an optional summer school course could be more palatable, so therefore parents can make the choice. “It should be an individual family’s decision.” However, she worries a pattern of “choice taken away” this year might mean parents may not be given the option of choosing.
While Schillinger did not love the idea at first, she conceded it may be necessary if things don’t improve soon. However, she says she thinks certain ground rules need to be followed. “This summer school cannot be virtual. It has to be in-person.”
But what about schools that don’t have air conditioning? Schillinger described how those school districts could work with groups like the YMCA, local churches, and other community centers that can provide the necessary facilities.
Julia Dubnoff, a sophomore at Lower Merion High School, said the idea of staying in school through summer “sounds terrible.”
She described how anxiety this year is “10 times worse” than it usually is, and that’s the root of the problem. While summer school may make up for lost educational hours, “that’s not going to solve [the mental health] issue, that’s going to only lead to more damage.” Dubnoff believes that when you weigh those costs to the benefits of more lessons, it points in the direction of keeping summer vacation.
While Dubnoff believes the district could “try to hold on longer in June than they usually do,” she thinks “there is no way that kids would just keep going to school [in the summer.]”
A summer spent in school for Dubnoff would mean another lost tradition. Ever since she was eight, she’s been going to overnight camp in the Poconos, and last year was supposed to be her Counselor-In-Training year, a favorite for attendees. “It got pushed back to this year,” she explained. Staying in school might put that summer tradition in jeopardy.
Schools being closed wouldn’t just affect students and parents. With families staying home more and children in classes all day, local businesses could stand to see losses as well.
“Businesses have had to be flexible,” said Main Line Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bernard Dagenais, explaining the challenges that have been lodged the past year. Schools being open during summer would be just another one.
But Dagenais also said for many businesses the news wouldn’t be all negative. “In some cases, parents will be freer if [students] are still in school… It could be beneficial to some types of businesses.”
He says he doesn’t believe the proposal would even dent local retail and restaurants. Instead, his concern lies with tourism. “The big issue this year is, is there going to be probably fewer out-of-town people coming into the Philadelphia region.” He expects instead there will be an uptick of locals taking “staycations,” traveling to local attraction sites and museums.
Schools being open would no doubt hinder even local travel, but Dagenais says that doesn’t matter compared to the virus itself. “The much bigger question is when do people feel they can more freely move around … and that has to do with the disease.”
The parents and students had different beliefs on how their communities would react to schools staying open. DeVito said “there would be a lot of backlash if they made it mandatory,” based on her conversations with others in the community.
“I can’t see a scenario in which school is able to actually happen for the whole summer, and that the parents would approve of that,” said Dubnoff.
But Schillinger said if it’s needed, the community will get on board. “If this is what it comes to, we will do it. We will do whatever we need to do for our children to make sure they’re not failing.”