Children across West Virginia are now entering summer break, after more than a year of being barred from classrooms for long stretches.
State pandemic precautions, combined with local restrictions that varied among counties and many parents’ own wishes to keep their children home, meant some students rarely received in-person instruction, and many didn’t get any.
The usual annual concerns regarding “summer slide” in academic performance are compounded by the likelihood that a yet-unknown percentage of West Virginia students started their slide back in March 2020, when Gov. Jim Justice first shuttered classrooms and this broadband-deficient state abruptly switched to remote-only learning — only to haltingly return the willing or desperate families’ students to classrooms by the school year’s end.
But with the help of roughly $32 million in federal dollars from a law former president Donald Trump signed in December, West Virginia county school systems are about to launch summer programs exceeding their usual offerings.
And, with the help of this money, these public school systems are offering free transportation to and from these in-person programs, plus meals for children when they arrive and, at least in some counties, field trips.
“It’s almost like a year-round school this school year,” said Steve Wotring, superintendent of Preston County and president of the West Virginia Association of School Administrators.
According to the West Virginia Department of Education, Preston’s summer program will be the longest among all 55 counties, clocking in at nine weeks.
Wotring said it’s four days a week and it’s really eight weeks, starting Monday, with a break week in the middle. But he did say “our summer programming is much larger than it usually is.”
“Mainly,” he said, “because we’ve had funding to do it this year.”
The morning sessions are going to be “much more academic-focused,” used to address deficiencies identified through online testing, Wotring said. The afternoons will include project-based activities. There will be gardening and drones.
“There might be a group that’s doing stuff with robotics, there might be stuff that’s doing water testing in community streams,” he said. “A lot of it is science-based, a lot of it’s outdoor-based activities.”
Registration remains open in Preston, but only for the second four-week period. He said 472 students have enrolled, about one of every 10 Preston public schoolers, based on fall 2020 enrollment.
Registration in some counties is already closed.
The West Virginia Department of Education said it doesn’t yet have summer enrollment data, but school officials’ responses to the Gazette-Mail from about 20 of the 55 counties show a wide range in the percentage of students participating.
Kanawha County, which also starts its program Monday, was on the lower end of those responding counties: Last week, it said 1,875 students, about 8% of its fall 2020 enrollment, would be taking part in the federal funded summer program. Statewide, it’s called SOLE, for Student Opportunities for Learning and Engagement.
But, on Friday, Kanawha spokeswoman Briana Warner revealed that 1,875 “does not fully take into account high school numbers,” and she said that registration for high schoolers is still open.
“One complication that we’ve also seen in elementary-aged student attendance is that many local daycare/programs are not allowing students to be absent in June for Academy and come back in July,” Warner wrote in an email. “Parents are still having to pay for June so they are keeping them in private care the whole summer.”
Mason County Superintendent Jack Cullen said his county’s summer enrollment was lower still, at 180 students — only about 5% of its fall 2020 enrollment — before it recently switched up its program to attract more students. He didn’t provide new numbers by publication time.
“This is one of those things that was a real learning experience for us trying to pull this off,” Cullen said. “We made a lot of mistakes.”
West Virginia Department of Education officials said schools can spend leftover summer SOLE money, plus the significantly more money from the American Rescue Plan President Joe Biden signed, on future summer programming through 2024. So counties will get another crack at this.
“We have a better understanding of what we’re doing and what people want,” Cullen said. “And I think it will still be good this summer and we’ll have an idea of how to move forward.”
He said one mistake was how Mason marketed the program, and the county has added a “hook” of field trips combined with learning, like about animals at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio or physics at Camden Park in Wayne County.
But Cullen said the program is also being shortened from his planned six weeks to one or two, with the decision on one or two left up to individual schools.
Parents, he said, had been calling all school year, saying “we want kids in school, we want kids in school.”
“And we gave them a chance to put them in school and they didn’t take the offer,” he said.
He said few employees applied for the summer positions, too.
Boone County is the only county in the state that didn’t apply for summer SOLE program funding, with Superintendent Lisa Beck saying plans and funding were already in place. She didn’t return a call for why she didn’t request more funding.
But some other counties said their summer enrollment will top 20% of their fall 2020 enrollment, including Braxton, with about 400 students, or 24%. Its program runs July 6-30.
Linda Sears, Braxton’s teaching and learning director, said the county chose a space theme, with children learning about moon phases one week, the planets the next, and so on.
Middle-schoolers will read a lower-vocabulary version of “Hidden Figures,” about Black NASA mathematician and West Virginia native Katherine Johnson, she said. The program will end with a cookout and rocketry at a local park.
Sears said students also will focus on fixing deficits, discovered through testing and high school course failures, in several subjects.
“We are a rural county, and there’s not a lot to do here,” Sears said.
She said there’s only one local public pool, in Sutton.
“They just need some kind of activity to keep them engaged,” she said.
Her county’s program will include field trips to places like the Clay Center in Charleston, she said.
“We’ve never had this much of an undertaking before,” she said.
It’s unclear how far enrolling even a quarter of students in these summer programs will go toward reversing pandemic-related “learning loss,” the national term for a national concern.
West Virginia public schools were required to provide distance learning since the March 2020 shutdowns, but canceled standardized tests and the sparse other academic outcome information provided by the state make it difficult to gauge how effective that was.
The West Virginia Department of Education hasn’t provided breakdowns showing how the students who were taught entirely or mostly remotely performed compared to those who learned primarily in person.
The department has provided data roughly showing that, in the first half of the now-ending school year, 29% of public schoolers statewide in grades 6-12 received at least one F in English, math, science or social studies. That proportion grew to 45%, if students with Ds were included.
Sonya White, of the state Department of Education, said in March the second round of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, approved by Trump before leaving office had provided $32 million to the department.
“So we decided to put that money back out into the field for summer learning for students,” White said, “and not just for students who are struggling, but for all students.”
“Yes, some of our students have suffered academically,” she said, “but all of our students have missed out on social-emotional engagement and just those extra things that as a [former] principal I would do every year with my kids at the school.”
Kanawha, the state’s most-populous county, received the largest summer grant: $3.2 million out of the $32 million. No. 2 Berkeley County likewise received the second-largest amount, $2.5 million, and so on down from Cabell County, which got $1.5 million, to the state’s smallest counties, which each got $178,000.