Atlanta Summer Program Adjusts Approach To Address COVID-Related Learning Loss

Summer programs have had a bigger-than-usual task this year. In addition to the summer slide, where some research has shown students can lose months of learning over the summer, many programs are trying to address what some experts now call the COVID slide. Research varies on how much learning students may have lost throughout the pandemic. However, there is consensus among education experts that generally, in-person instruction is more effective than remote learning.

Horizons Atlanta is a summer program with ten locations in the metro area. It’s been around since 1999. The program serves students from low-income households who return each summer. Executive Director Alex Wan says that consistency means students can gain academic ground instead of losing months of learning over the summer.

“We had it down in terms of a formula for every summer,” he says. “Six weeks literacy, math, swimming, field trips, I mean it was pretty formulaic up until 2019.”

When COVID-19 hit in 2020, the summer program went virtual. Wan says this summer, seven of the ten programs resumed in-person learning. He says the program focused on three main areas this year.

“One, acknowledging academic learning loss from 2020,” Wan says. “We knew that was going to be something we would have to adapt to.”

Horizons Atlanta shifted to a virtual program last summer. This year, most sites were able to resume in-person instruction. (Credit: Horizons Atlanta)

Wan says the program also focused on Social Emotional Learning (SEL), recognizing that some students haven’t been in a classroom for 18 months.

“We knew we’d have to strike a new balance in terms of the academic rigor of our programs as well as the fun, the enrichment exercises we do for our scholars,” Wan says.

Wan says they also focused on the needs of the staff.

LaVasia Bullard is the site director for Horizons Atlanta at Purpose Built Schools. During a typical summer, she says there’s usually a three-day adjustment period, where the program is working out its kinks. This summer, Bullard says that period took about 11 days at her site. She says the program was prepared to provide support but didn’t anticipate having to re-teach social behaviors.

“How do you ask to go to the restroom? because you have not had to ask to use the restroom in 18 months,” she says. “Or, ‘Wait! Where are you going?’ and they’re going to get a snack from their bookbag because, at your house, you can just freely do those things.”

Horizons Atlanta assesses students and collects data to track whether they’re making progress. They don’t have current data yet, but Wan has been talking with site directors to see what they’re noticing. He says while during a typical school year, some Horizons students may be a few months behind, now he estimates some may be a full year behind.

Bullard says the drawbacks of remote learning were evident in areas like handwriting for younger children.

“When you talk about being able to write your name and forming letters…we did find that as an area that we need[ed] to focus on,” she says. “Those things really do lead to gains in terms of literacy and executive functioning that have to be in place to make sure our kids get to the highest levels of literacy.”

In addition to academics, Horizons Atlanta has always emphasized the importance of knowing how to swim. That wasn’t included last summer since the program was virtual. Wan says most sites were able to resume swimming this year.

“It may not have been as rigorous as 2-3 days a week as previous [summers],” Wan says. “Some [sites] were just saying, ‘We’re going to get you to a splash pad, get you in water so that you can get acclimated and get ready for next summer when we are back fully swimming.’”

Horizons Atlanta has data-sharing agreements with the school districts where their students are enrolled, including Atlanta Public Schools and Fulton County Schools. In addition to summer classes, it also conducts some programs throughout the school year. Some school districts expect the COVID recovery to take at least three years. Wan acknowledges that and says his organization is willing to do the work it will take to help kids close the gap.