Responsible parents don’t let summer go to waste. That, for a long time, has been the thinking among parenting experts. And so, instead of the carefree summers of our own childhoods, we parents squeeze little more than a “free” day or two in between sports practices, well-curated family vacations, “meaningful” camps designed to advance our kids’ learning and tutoring sessions to fend off the dreaded “summer slide” – that research-backed phenom in which kids can lose two to three months of learning while school’s out.
Full disclosure: As a journalist, I have penned articles to arm parents with the tools to combat “summer brain drain” – a term that turns lovely summery imagery into scary abstractions. My mission was to inform, but in light of what we’ve all just experienced – that sudden flinging of our kids into distance learning while we were all at home together, worrying about the coronavirus itself – I’d like to offer my deepest apologies. As a fellow parent.
My household struggled mightily with distance learning, and after much hair-pulling, my son (a seventh-grade honor student) admitted that he simply was not motivated. His teachers weren’t updating his grades the way they did in “real school,” and while he missed being able to see his teachers and classmates face to face, there was no way he was turning on his camera so that they could see him virtually. Meanwhile, as assignments piled up and some teachers held regular Zoom meetings while another (math!) held none, my husband and I worried that our son was falling behind. In this age of information overload and mounting parental anxieties about education quality, we weren’t alone.
And it turns out the pandemic, indeed, created not only the learning gaps we feared, but gifted us with a new name as well.
The new slide in town
“What they’re calling it is the ‘COVID Slide.’ Oh, yeah, it has a name,” says Candice Lapin, founder of The Ladder Method, an academic coaching company in based in Los Angeles and Orange counties and now virtually.
A conversation about math learning loss with John Bianchette, associate vice president of education and training at Mathnasium, reinforced my fears about my son and his peers. “The COVID Slide will have a tremendous negative impact on students and result in a significant math learning loss,” Bianchette says. “Preliminary projections indicate students may lose up to an entire year’s worth of growth due to school shutdowns if steps are not taken.” Mathnasium has created a program that targets the critical skills students may have missed. “The only way to reverse this trend for students is to work on mathematics, but those efforts must be strategic,” says Bianchette. “If a lack of learning stems from a lack of direct instruction, then you must make certain students are receiving the support they need.”
My talk with Lapin was more reassuring. The Ladder Method, which coaches students from public and private K-12 schools and colleges, including students with learning differences, uses assessment data to craft its curriculum, and I assumed Lapin would beam a laser on all the ways in which my family would need to make up ground lost due to the COVID Slide. However, within a few minutes, some of my anxieties began to quell.
Lapin is also the author of “Parenting in the Age of Perfection: A Modern Guide to Nurturing a Success Mindset,” and she has a knack for leveling with parents about educational realities while also encouraging us to ease up on ourselves. “I want parents to know it’s not just their kids who were having a hard time,” she says. “There’s a lot of guilt, there’s a lot of shame, questions about who’s being impacted the most. Some parents are saying, ‘I shouldn’t complain because there are all these other kids who don’t even have internet access.’ Yes, for some people, it’s really profound, but all kids are being affected by COVID Slide.
“There is the equity issue, but then layer on top of that any kind of learning difference or the fact that some kids develop at a gentler place or need to sit in front of the teacher to be engaged. It was very hard for those kids to engage via Zoom. They started to drift. And then there were those kids who just, due to lack of internet access and other issues in the home, didn’t even get to show up for class. I like to think of it as an equal opportunity leveler. No one was spared.”
The disheartening education gaps between children attending schools in low- and high-income neighborhoods have been apparent for decades, but COVID-19 spotlighted just how unequal our education systems, and economic realities, are.
Addressing these digital and economic divides, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond has been giving public updates on how his Closing the Digital Divide Task Force is working with corporations, schools and community leaders to ensure all students have access to computers and the internet. While many students in local public school districts already had school-issued iPads, others did not. And not all schools and teachers were set up to immediately switch to online learning.
“Though we are making progress, we still have a lot of work ahead in order to ensure all our students are connected and able to learn,” Thurmond said in a recent press statement. “Affordable computing devices and internet are not only necessary for distance learning but also for lifelong success.”
The transition was not as difficult for many of the private schools Lapin’s students attend. “Many of them already had transition plans in place, and they hit the ground running,” she says. “But, then again, they’re not managing as many students either, and they have more flexibility to pivot more quickly.”
Loyola High School was one of those able to make a smooth transition to virtual learning. “Loyola was prepared to quickly transition to remote learning because of a well-established online learning management platform, and the familiar routines and expectations put in place by Loyola faculty and the administration,” says Assistant Principal for Academics Robb Gorr. “Our outstanding instructors embraced the challenge of transitioning their classes online and carried their students swiftly, meaningfully, creatively and comprehensively through course content while keeping the mental and physical wellbeing of students at the forefront of their pedagogical practices.”
Loyola teachers estimated that they were able to complete on average 80-85% of course content objectives while distance learning, Gorr says. In an effort to make up for lost ground due to the COVID Slide, the school will provide summer enrichment opportunities and organize fall curriculum to “vertically bridge content from each academic discipline.”
Try a little compassion –for yourself
While student, parent and faculty surveys at Loyola yielded positive responses about the school’s digital model, parents and students at some other schools were far less pleased with their virtual learning experience.
The Ladder Method, which already offered online learning, transitioned all of its academic coaching to virtual in one day. “We provided free resources for parents who might not have as much access, and we took our summer curriculum and put it out live on Instagram,” Lapin says. “It was a time where we wanted to really give back. It was the least we could do, just offer it. We had reading hour, preschool enrichment….”
Lapin wants parents to gift themselves with the same kind of compassion she and her staff feel for them.
“I think parents need to think of this as an educational crisis,” she says. “They need to have so much compassion for themselves, because it was something that was out of everybody’s hands.” Instead of beating themselves up about the inevitable slide that took place, Lapin advises parents to pat themselves on the back for navigating such an uncertain time. “You want to look at what were the wins and how can we sort of soften the losses,” she says. “I think the more compassion that we can have for parents, parent to parent, parent to child, the more that this is going to be a manageable experience.”
To that end, instead of jumping into a flurry of virtual schooling this summer, parents and students who are feeling exhausted should honor their need to tap the brakes.
Get back to learning – eventually and gently
Your kids– and you – have myriad thoughts and feelings (including grief over what’s been lost or altered during the pandemic) to process. So, hopefully you’ve been able to slow down and enjoy the beginning of summer.
“Eventually, though, if you see that there are some gaps, start to look at the things that you can take advantage of,” says Lapin. My son has been taking advantage of summer school enrichment classes offered by the Los Angeles Unified School District, but even if your kids didn’t “attend” summer school, there are many “lessons” we can help them learn.
“Instead of saying what’s the point and throwing in the towel, think about how you can use this experience to teach more resilience, make up ground in a more lighthearted way,” Lapin says. “I really think parents should strongly consider at least having some kind of tutoring because the summer slide, especially if you have a child that has a learning difference, they don’t benefit in having no work over the summer. When there’s too much time over the summer, that first month or two back is much more challenging.”
Asked how parents – and students – can release the pressure of trying to make up for the COVID Slide gap so that kids are ready for fall, Lapin says it’s a mindset, it’s all in the way we speak to ourselves and our kids about it. “Instead of saying ‘falling behind,’ I think parents should use the word ‘pause,’ or think of it as a slowing down of the learning process as opposed to thinking of it as falling behind,” she says. “At the end of the day, all kids are basically on the same pause.”
Wherever the fall semester does start, government and school officials say there will likely be student assessments to help pinpoint what needs to be done to make up for COVID Slide deficits.
“They’re going to want to see where each student’s starting point is for the fall,” Lapin says.
A few (stress-free) COVID Slide resources, tips
Whether you’re concerned about beefing up your middle schooler’s math skills or helping your preschooler build social-emotional skills, I’ve rounded up a few tips from Lapin and other educators to help your summer learning journey.
- Check out “Tips for the Early Years,” kinder-readiness benchmarks and brain-building strategies from early-education nonprofit Child360.
- Organize Zoom or other video-conferencing play dates for younger children who haven’t been spending time with children their age.
- Watch the excellent and parent-friendly talk, “Fighting the Summer Slide When Kids May Already Be Behind,” between Common Sense Education Editor Chrissy Elgersma and Common Sense Media Senior Parenting Editor Caroline Knorr, whose advice and tips (from outdoor play to apps they love) are designed to help take the pressure off you.
- Check out Tinkergarten, which specializes in providing outdoor early-learning experiences for children and is offering a summer of wellness for kids with its new free program – Camp Tinkergarten. It kicked off June 20 and will run through Aug. 15, and you can join any time. The program is built around playful, outdoor learning activities for babies through elementary age and insightful resources for parents on how to help young kids get the most out of their summer.
- Prerecorded video classes are great, but consider signing your kids up for at least one virtual or live class to get them back into the habit of learning online, since this method of learning is here to stay. An additional tip from Lapin: “With kids that have learning differences, you’re going to want live classes pretty much across the board. Don’t be afraid of a live class. You have a better likelihood that your child is going to stay engaged.”
- Read, read, read. “If they’re not inherent readers, read with or alongside them,” Lapin says. “There are many good books out there, including books on anti-racism and what’s happening in the world.”
- Look back at your child’s assignments, quizzes and tests over the last school year to see where they still struggle, look ahead at what they will study next year and devise a plan to help them remediate skills, Bianchette says.
And as you and your family find ways to weave together summer fun and summer learning to address the COVID Slide, remember to create a schedule. Lapin calls it a form of freedom. “You might get pushback, but that’s just the nature of kids,” she says. “If you can approach it from the place that they have agency within that schedule, then it’s going to feel more like they’re a partner. Make it fun. You don’t want to be like a dictator. Remind them that this is a different kind of year, and we’re all in the same place.”
Cassandra Lane is Managing Editor of L.A. Parent.