After struggling through more than a year of remote learning, Dolton School District 149 finally received some encouraging news: An infusion of federal COVID-19 dollars would allow the district to launch a vibrant summer school program aimed at bridging a pervasive student achievement gap that was worsened by the pandemic.
But despite the chance to tap into the roughly $8 billion in COVID-19 funds heading to Illinois schools, officials at the south suburban district — where more than 99% of students are from low-income families — are finding it tough to recruit exhausted teachers and students after a grueling school year like no other.
“It’s going to be years before teachers, students and parents get past the emotional stress the past year has placed on us,” said Jay Cunneen, a consultant and former District 149 superintendent.
“People are looking at summer as a time to recharge their batteries, to get away from the stress, for their kids to have fun and play again, and maybe take a family vacation. ... Everyone is burned out and needs a break,” said Cunneen, who spent a recent morning trying to recruit teachers for District 149′s expansive summer school program slated for the last three weeks of June.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has warned of significant damage to student learning and social-emotional wellness during the pandemic, and the American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund is funneling around $122 billion to states and school districts across the U.S. Yet Illinois educators are now scrambling to find teachers and students for summer programs intended to address those issues.
The Illinois State Board of Education has so far received more than 680 applications from school districts and regional offices of education seeking federal pandemic relief funds to pay for summer school and other extended learning programs for students.
At Chicago Public Schools, to “incentivize” educators to sign up for summer school after a challenging year, officials are offering teachers and staff additional pay of $200 per week, beyond the usual summer compensation, to lead the district’s Bridge+, Extended School Year and Credit Recovery classes, CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said.
CPS is offering a slate of summer programs, with roughly 90,000 spots for students, Bolton said, adding that one of the largest programs, Bridge+, is designed to support elementary school students who will receive an average grade of D or F for the 2020-21 school year.
As summer school is not mandatory, CPS is trying to encourage parents to sign up their kids with “intensive outreach” to families and plans to kick off a districtwide campaign later this month, Bolton said.
CPS will also offer an expanded Extended School Year program this summer for students with special education plans, she said.
Officials at suburban districts are also unveiling robust summer school programs, while well aware that teachers and students are in desperate need of a break.
“Everyone needs the summer off, so we’ve had a little bit of trouble finding teachers, but our staff is committed to our students, and we’re incredibly thankful for that,” said Joshua Schumacher, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for Palatine-based Township High School District 211.
As of last week, around 6,100 students were enrolled in District 211 summer school, which includes an academy featuring skill-building in subjects like math and English, and offers small class sizes that can support individualized instruction.
The program will also offer a roster of Summer Advancement classes ranging from college essay writing to automotive and manufacturing courses.
The influx of federal COVID-19 relief funding has allowed the district to offer most programs free of charge, he said.
Determined to help districts recruit teachers to staff summer school classes intended to repair COVID-19 student learning gaps, Illinois legislators recently approved a measure that temporarily amends a pension salary cap rule for veteran educators.
The measure, Senate Bill 1646, which legislators recently passed with bipartisan support, allows longtime teachers who are nearing retirement, and whose salary increases are capped at 6%, to teach summer school, with the additional pension costs to be paid for by the state rather than the school district, Illinois Education Association spokesman Bridget Shanahan said.
The legislation garnered support from school district officials who are still trying to staff summer school classes intended to remediate student learning loss caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Shanahan said.
In normal times, school districts would have to pay the pension contribution for any amount over 6% for veteran educators, which would likely have prevented districts from selecting end-of-career teachers to teach summer school.
“There are educators throughout the state who want to work during the summer to address the academic and social-emotional needs of our students, IEA President Kathi Griffin said.
“Since the additional summer school work will not impact the 6% salary threshold, the selection of those who will be working this summer will be based on their expertise, not where they fall on the salary schedule,” Griffin added.
“We have been working so hard to help solve the teacher shortage that is happening in Illinois,” Griffin said. “Having all teachers available to work during the summer could encourage our veteran teachers to continue teaching and take pressure off of some who might have young families, or other concerns, a chance to take a deep breath and prepare for next school year.”
While many Illinois school districts are offering in-person summer school programs, a shortage of staff and students interested in returning to the classroom led to the creation of a fully remote program for students at Elk Grove Village-based Community Consolidated School District 59.
“We ended up remote because we didn’t have enough students and staff for in-person, and we knew it would help to offer everyone some flexibility,” said Maureen McAbee, the district’s assistant superintendent of instruction.
The remote program is focused on building reading, math and English language skills, and will retain the district’s existing intervention groups from the past school year, McAbee said.
“The teachers in our schools already know these kids, so it will be a smooth transition,” she said.
The district is also using federal funds to pay for take-home kits with reading and math activities for students, and is keeping open all of its digital platforms to allow parents to remain connected and receive support for helping their kids at home.
“We let our families choose, and most told us they wanted their children to keep learning, but also said their children need a break,” McAbee said. “It didn’t make a lot of sense to offer in-person classes to so few students, and our teachers also need time to recharge and get their creative juices flowing.”
Students at Arlington Heights-based Township High School District 214 will also benefit from federal funding this summer, with officials using the extra dollars to expand bridge programs, said Megan Knight, the district’s director of academic programs and pathways.
“We will be live and in person daily, and we’ll be offering busing,” Knight said. “We’re really excited to get up and running, and summer school is going to look similar to what it was in 2019, pre-pandemic.”
At Wilmette School District 39, officials are still looking to hire a few more teachers to staff an expansive summer school program that begins in early July, said Kristin Swanson, administrator for student and special services.
“It’s definitely been challenging finding teachers, because it’s been a tough year, and a lot of people have told us they really need the time off. ... Everyone needs a little break,” Swanson said.
Above all, Swanson said the district’s summer school program — which includes review and reinforcement for students who need extra help in core subjects like reading and math — will be designed to be enjoyable, rather than “drill and kill.”
“We need to start making connections back to school, and some students will have to redevelop skill sets in things like following directions and raising their hands,” Swanson said.
Around 6,000 of the 36,000 elementary and high school students enrolled in Elgin-based District U-46 are signed up for the district’s Summer Connection program, which features classes ranging from academics and physical fitness to fine arts and outdoor education, spokeswoman Mary Fergus said.
New this summer are three transition-style programs to help incoming students in seventh, eighth, ninth and 12th grade prepare for the year ahead.
All of the district’s programs will be offered in person, free of charge, and will include transportation and a daily lunch.
“We started back in person in January, but about 50% of our families still choose for their students to stay remote, Fergus said. “Summer school is all in person, which is critical, because we’re giving students a chance to reconnect, and it’s exciting for them to have extra learning, and it’s especially helpful to their social-emotional wellness by being together again, which is just as important.”
In Dolton, former superintendent Cunneen said as a low-income school district that has long suffered from inequities that were magnified during the pandemic, the surge of federal funding has led to the creation of a summer school program that is educational and enjoyable.
“I think people realize we’re tremendously blessed to have this funding, especially as a low-income school district where even before the pandemic, we were dealing with the achievement gap every day,” Cunneen said. “My first reaction was, ‘Oh my goodness! What are we going to do with this money?’ But we have to be innovative, and we have to change the paradigm, and not do the same thing, as that’s not really changing anything.”