Payson schools are scrambling to find enough teachers to meet the demand for summer school classes, with the session thrown open to a student body that has struggled for the past year to cope with COVID-19.
Normally, the district offers a limited number of makeup classes for students who need key classes to graduate — or advance to the next grade level. However, the district didn’t offer summer school at all last year because of the pandemic.
This year, so many students ended up not completing classes during the on-again, off-again period of distance learning that the district decided to help students fill in gaps by offering a broader summer school program.
The big problem remains finding enough teachers willing to put in the extra months of effort — since most teachers work a nine-month contract.
The summer session is only possible thanks to a $95,000 grant from the MHA Foundation, an extra $19,000 from the district’s contingency fund to augment help from federal grants. The MHA Foundation — through its Aspire Arizona Foundation — also foots the bill for dual-enrollment college classes in the district.
Last week, Superintendent Linda Gibson said the district can’t find enough summer teachers willing to work for the standard $20 an hour. So the board approved boosting the summer school pay to $30 an hour. That’s about what the average teacher makes during the school year if you count the cost of benefits.
“We do not want to turn down any student who wishes to attend,” said Gibson in a memo to the board asking for approval of the higher wage to lure more teachers back into the classroom during the summer.
In grades K-8, the summer classes will mostly focus on math and English. Studies show that if students in the lower grades fall behind in those key, building block areas — they struggle to gain ground in middle school and high school and have a much higher chance of dropping out. The district hasn’t consistently administered standardized testing in all grades in the past year, so it’s unclear how much ground the average student in Payson has to make up. However, national studies suggest that most students have lost months of normal academic progress.
The district administered a round of academic testing in April, but hasn’t yet compiled the results. The tests will help teachers pinpoint areas in which students have key learning gaps.
At the high school level, the mix of summer school classes offered will depend on what this year’s juniors and seniors need to graduate on time.
“The high school classes will depend on what students need credit-wise towards graduation,” said Gibson.
Studies have demonstrated many students have a lot of ground to regain due to the shift in and out of distance learning in the past year.
One recent study concluded that “students made little or no progress while learning from home and suggests losses even larger in countries with weaker infrastructure or longer school closures,” according to researchers from Stanford University and elsewhere writing in the peer-reviewed Journal of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study focused on the test scores of 350,000 students in the Netherlands, which administered national examinations both before and after an eight-week lockdown near the beginning of the pandemic. The researchers compared progress during the pandemic to progress in the same period in the previous three years.
Student progress stalled although the Netherlands had a relatively brief, eight-week shift to distance learning and even though the country has one of the highest rates of broadband connections at home in the world. The U.S. experienced longer lockdowns and has a much higher share of students without reliable internet at home — 20% to 30% in many rural areas like Payson.
The study showed a learning loss of 3 percentile points during the two months of at-home study. Students from low-income homes suffered a 60% greater learning loss than the average.
Another study found that this fall students started class about three months behind where they would have been without the school shutdowns in the spring, according to a study sponsored by McKinsey & Company. Students from low-income families suffered the most, starting school three to five months behind compared to a loss of one to three months for families from high income homes. The problem was much more pronounced in math than for reading.
Students made up some of that lost ground in the fall, after schools refined their distance learning programs and more schools returned to in-person classes.
Payson schools returned to in-person classes quickly in the fall, but shifted back to distance learning on several campuses after the rise in COVID cases on campus forced so many teachers to quarantine that the district couldn’t find enough substitutes to keep operating normally.
District officials hope the expanded summer school classes will help make up the learning losses in time for school to resume in August, with teachers fully vaccinated and as many students as possible protected against fresh outbreaks of the virus.