Across the country, virtually all of the nation’s 56 million schoolchildren are out of school due to COVID-19-related closures. In some cases, school has stopped altogether; one-third of states are not requiring remote learning,1 leaving the decision up to districts. In the thousands of school districts that have set up remote learning plans, teachers, students, and families are navigating this transition with uneven results.2

For Sue Najm, a junior at Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn, New York, it has been hard to focus on online schoolwork. As a youth in foster care, much of her attention over the past few weeks has been focused on how COVID-19 affects court dates for her custody case. When she has been able to work on her online schooling, she has found the learning style to be challenging: “I am a visual learner, and I’m more hands-on. I need someone to be teaching me, or else I’m not going to pay attention. [Remote learning] is time consuming, and it’s harder for me. I can’t learn that way.”3

Teachers are also finding the transition to be challenging. “Virtual teaching has been stressful,” explained Noah Garcia, a sixth grade English language arts teacher and UFT Chapter Leader at the Math and Science Exploratory School in Brooklyn. “We’re working all day, night, all week and weekend to be prepared for the ever-changing circumstance of living and learning with COVID-19. I get off of a call with my student or colleague and I hop on Facetime with my kid brother to discuss his school work and emotions. It’s a lot to juggle and I can’t wait to go back to the physical classroom.”4

American schoolchildren are missing out on a large chunk of in-person learning time this year—roughly 30 percent of the school year.

American schoolchildren are missing out on a large chunk of in-person learning time this year—roughly 30 percent of the school year—and it is anticipated that this interruption will result in academic achievement loss. Schools and communities need to think creatively about making up that lost time, starting as early as this summer. And because this gap in learning time is going to have greater effect on vulnerable students, remedies and supports should first target the students who are most at-risk during school closures—including low-income students, English learners, and students with disabilities—with the goal of helping to close widening opportunity gaps. With state and local budgets facing drastic shortfalls, the federal government needs to step up to support these efforts.

The “COVID-19 Slide” and Widening Gaps

There is ample evidence suggesting that there will be large losses in academic achievement for students as a result of COVID-19-related school closures. When students spend significant time out of school over the summer months, it results in what is known as the “Summer Slide.” Researchers estimate that students lose on average the equivalent of one to three months of achievement gains over the summer,5 with losses greater in math than reading and larger in higher grades.

But under the current COVID-19 school crisis, students may be out of school from March to September, or potentially longer. Forty-seven states have already ordered or recommended that school buildings remain closed through the end of the academic year. NWEA, a nonprofit organization that develops and offers student assessments, estimates that students may return to school in the fall (in person, or virtually) having lost an average of 30 percent of typical yearly achievement gains in reading and more than 50 percent of their achievement gains in math.6

Evidence that these achievement losses will hit disadvantaged students the hardest is especially worrisome. We know from research on summer achievement losses that these averages likely belie very different experiences for students of different socioeconomic backgrounds. For example, middle-class students on average show some gains in reading over the summer while low-income students show losses, likely due to the fact that low-income students have less access to reading support and practice during the summer.7 One study found that the accumulated differences in summer reading loss for low-income versus middle-class students accounted for two-thirds of the socioeconomic gap in reading achievement by ninth grade.8

The current closures of school buildings have further exacerbated differences in students’ experiences and the levels of support versus trauma that they are experiencing. Some children have parents at home helping them with schoolwork, while others are children of essential workers, and thus may be supervised by caregivers, unsupervised, or even may be responsible for caring for their younger siblings. Some students are eating regular meals at home, and others are experiencing food and housing insecurity. The achievement losses for the students most impacted by COVID-19’s health and economic crisis are likely to far exceed average estimates.

The current closures of school buildings have further exacerbated differences in students’ experiences and the levels of support versus trauma that they are experiencing.

Noah Garcia’s experience teaching English language arts to sixth graders illustrates how remote learning can widen gaps between students. Garcia teaches classes that intentionally blend students with and without disabilities, including some classes that are specifically focused on inclusion of students on the autism spectrum. However, she has found that maintaining all the benefits of an inclusive classroom is challenging with individualized online learning. Some of her higher-level students have managed well with the independence of remote schooling. According to Garcia, “Some were more tech-savvy, to begin with, some grasped concepts quicker than others. Those students are able to work more independently and perform high daily. They turn in all assignments, they reach out and self-advocate.” Garcia is continuing a book club for a group of higher-level readers that was initially on hold due to the transition to remote learning because students specifically requested that it resume. On the other hand, some students who struggled more in the regular classroom setting are now having the hardest time with the transition to remote learning, either because they have had issues gaining access to technology or because they struggled with the workload or understanding instructions. And for some of Garcia’s students on the autism spectrum, figuring out new routines to support schoolwork in a home setting has been a challenge.9

Diamond Skinner, a middle school special education teacher at The Computer School in Manhattan (which, despite its name, is a regular brick-and-mortar public school outside of pandemic times), shares Garcia’s concerns that online learning is creating new gaps in student learning. She says the transition has been jarring. Before COVID-19, her goal was to create rich instruction to challenge each student and provide access to diverse voices in classroom materials. Now, in the midst of COVID-19 school closures, she is largely focused on simply making sure that some students have their basic needs and safety met at home. For many of Skinner’s students, the transition to remote learning has been relatively smooth. By her assessment, high-quality instruction is still happening, and there have even been some chances to see quieter students show engagement in new ways. Compared to most New York City public schools, the student body at The Computer School is more advantaged, serving a student body that is 29 percent low-income;10 and because administrators at the school anticipated school closures before they were announced, teachers were able to have some extra planning time with their departments to speed and ease the transition to online learning. But Skinner worries that her most vulnerable students are still getting left behind. “I’m not hearing from [the students] that I most need to hear from every single day…. Sometimes they can’t because they’re taking care of siblings, or their other sibling needs to have a conference with their teachers, or they’re not even awake at a certain time because their parent is still working.”11

A Summer without Support Could Amplify Inequality

With most states already closing schools through the end of the school year, this summer will be pivotal. Summer could provide time to deliver additional support for students that could ease some of the challenges of this crisis; or, without those efforts, it could be an especially hard time for disadvantaged students.

In a typical year, middle-class students are five times as likely as those living in poverty to attend summer camps, and twice as likely to visit a museum or attend a performance.12 These sorts of opportunities for engagement and learning help fight the summer slide. Garcia says it’s clear to her as a teacher that the different access students have to summer opportunities affects their academic readiness at the start of the school year: “Every September I am able to see which student had an opportunity for enrichment and which did not through the first writing assessment we give. It’s very clear, and all year we work to get them on or as close to grade level as we can. I do fear the summer slide back will be greater [this year].”13

Research shows that well-designed summer learning programs, both classroom-based academic programs and summer youth employment programs (like the ones in New York City and Boston) can help to stem students’ achievement losses.14 Some summer camps and enrichment programs have been shown to have positive academic effects, even when academic content is not the main focus of the program.15

Of course, this will not be a typical summer. If physical distancing measures remain in place across much of the country through August, far fewer students of all economic backgrounds will have access to traditional summer programs or enrichment activities. Many cities have already announced that public parks, recreation centers, pools, and camps will be closed and their programs cancelled this year. For most students, this will be disappointing, but for some students—such as students in low-income families and those impacted by recent unemployment, those whose parents are essential workers, students with disabilities who have struggled to get services remotely, and English learners who may be adapting to online learning platforms in languages they don’t yet use fluently—a summer without enrichment or learning opportunities could be devastating. If restrictions are lifted over the summer, it will be important to prioritize access to summer programs for vulnerable students who have struggled most with school closures thus far.16

In New York City, student advocates are speaking up to fight the city’s decision to cut this year’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP),17 which was slated to place 75,000 youth ages 14–24 in summer jobs with local community organizations and businesses. Jorge Morales, an alumni advisor for the student-led organization Teens Take Charge, is helping lead the advocacy campaign to save SYEP. He says that he worries about lost income for youth and families, lost learning opportunities, and missed work experience if SYEP and programs like it are not available this summer: “I think it could have very drastic effects, not just for those individuals, for their families and also for their communities.”18

Sue Najm was admitted to SYEP, and has been planning on participating in the program this summer. The prospect of on-the-job learning and the chance to make her own money were appealing to her, particularly as a youth in foster care. “What are we going to do this summer if all of our programs are being cut?” she asked.19 Karleny Ramos, a junior at High School for Teaching and the Professions in the Bronx, participated in SYEP last summer and is hoping to be part of the program again this year. “Summer youth has just changed my whole perspective on what I wanted to do in the future,” she explained. “It’s just given me a whole sense of knowledge of what the work field is going to be like outside of high school and growing up.”20

What Summer Learning Might Look Like in the Time of COVID-19

With so much still uncertain about the trajectory of the pandemic over this summer and into the fall, summer learning could take many different forms.21 School district and city leaders will need to consider several factors:

  • In-person or virtual? If physical distancing is lifted over the summer in some communities, it may make sense to bring students together in person, potentially in smaller settings than a full school building five days a week, in order to give students access to in-person learning and parents access to child care as soon as possible. But if in-person programs are not possible, remote learning is still worth supporting. Districts have faced a variety of challenges in adjusting to remote learning, but there is hope that some of the progress made so far in getting students connected could make the pathway somewhat easier moving forward. And a virtual summer learning program with a very targeted approach could look different from current efforts to quickly convert the rest of the semester from classroom to computer. For example, research on several at-home summer reading programs that provided students with reading materials and tips found that even these relatively low-lift programs had promising results for students.22 Ideally, programs should be designed to be flexible to adapt as public safety guidelines change. New York City leaders have cited the likelihood that social distancing will continue through the summer as part of the reason for cancelling SYEP, but student Karleny Ramos thinks that’s not a good excuse: “If the city can [start] remote learning [for public schools] within a week, then we can switch to remote learning within a six-week period of Summer Youth [Employment Program.]”23 Jorge Morales agrees, and urges the city to think about flexible models that could allow for completely virtual work or a hybrid of virtual and in-person experiences over the summer.24 The Campaign for Summer Jobs, a coalition of New York City organizations advocating for SYEP, has suggested that the career training and exposure portions of the program could be offered through online sessions, with some participants completing programs for an industry-recognized credential (such as in food protection and food handling, or using Microsoft Office or Google Suites).25 Some portions of the job placement could also be offered remotely; for example, a participant placed with a local community center, museum, or retail store could help with social media or conduct research for community business plans for re-launching once restrictions are lifted.
  • Universal or targeted? There is a strong case for offering summer learning programs to all students if budget allows, but districts should at the very least look to create programs that target at-risk students.26 Districts should also consider making extended school year services available to more students with disabilities through the development of provisional Individualized Education Programs.27 Some suggestions for addressing achievement loss—such as automatically holding back students28 in high-poverty schools or creating half-grades 29for students who are behind grade level—threaten to create rigid academic tracks, which will ultimately harm students in lower-level classes.30 Joshua Starr, CEO of PDK International and a former school superintendent, said he is “really concerned [COVID-19] is going to be an excuse to go back to tracking for lots of districts.”31 Targeted programs should be specifically designed to avoid this outcome, serving as a bridge to bring students back into heterogeneous and inclusive settings as much as possible.
  • Mandatory or voluntary? Truly mandatory summer programs would be not only difficult to enforce but also likely counterproductive from an equity perspective, as some students may have barriers to participation for reasons outside of their control, whether they are at home caring for younger siblings or missing the relevant information or equipment. Under any model, students—and teachers—should not be penalized if they do not participate. But that should not stop districts from working hard to encourage summer programs for all students and support families to make participation possible. Districts could decide whether to make participation in summer programs an expectation of all or some students or simply a voluntary option. Under any model, districts will also need to devote resources to outreach, in multiple languages and through multiple channels, to ensure that the most vulnerable families know about summer learning programs and expectations.
  • Run by districts or community organizations? District-run summer programs have the distinct advantages of easier alignment with the school-year curriculum and assessments and built-in access to trained teachers. However, in some cases, logistical hurdles—whether it’s a lack or air-conditioned school buildings or staffing challenges—may prevent districts from serving large numbers of students in summer programs. Many community-run afterschool programs have already been active in supporting students through school closures. According to a survey by the Afterschool Alliance, 78 percent of afterschool programs are currently providing virtual enrichment opportunities and staying connected with youth remotely, and more than a third are distributing meals or other resources to families.32 Involving community organizations, possibly in partnership with districts, can also bring benefits in its own right, connecting students to cultural resources and outdoor opportunities that could provide much needed enrichment and engagement. Starr said that aligning academic work in summer programs operated by community groups with district curricula is challenging, but there’s an important role for community organizations to play in helping boost students’ social-emotional learning and get them involved in service activities: “I think that the more active our kids can be, the better we are.”33
  • What will students do, and how will they be assessed? Given the “burnout” that some families and teachers are already feeling with online learning, there may be a strong case for summer learning to look quite different from the spring 2020 semester. Districts may decide to use a combination of academic, enrichment, and employment programs—all of which have been shown to have benefits to students, when run well. Measuring results will be important to inform future lessons about what worked (and what did not), to open opportunities for mid-program course corrections, and to provide classroom teachers with some data on students’ academic and/or social-emotional needs prior to the fall.

Many decisions about how to structure these activities will likely need to be made locally, and the best option for different districts will vary.

The Need for Federal Support

Funding efforts to fight the COVID-19 achievement slide will require a federal lift. State and local budgets are facing devastating cuts,34 against which the $13.5 billion in K–12 education funding provided so far in the CARES Act is little relief.35 New York City’s decision to cut SYEP is just one example of how students are losing out in the face of budget constraints. Elisabeth Ginsburg, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, has said that she thinks it is unlikely that many New Jersey districts will offer summer school because they don’t have the resources to pay teachers.36 Los Angeles Unified School District has announced that it will offer virtual summer school for all students, but so far it has only identified half of the funding that it needs to pull this off.37

The federal government should help out by funding two main programs:

  • Create a new federal fund for school districts to support extra learning time. Ultimately, figuring out ways to support students over summer 2020 should be part of a bigger question about how to make up lost learning time throughout the next school year. Federal funding directly to school districts to be used for summer school programs, extending the length of the school day, or extending the school year would allow districts to make up this time in multiple ways from summer 2020 through summer 2021. This funding stream should have the flexibility for districts to develop programs specific to their needs based on the design questions above, but should also have some guardrails to ensure dollars are focused on the students most in need and the programs that are most effective. For example, districts should be able to use funds on virtual or in-person programs, particularly as there is a strong possibility that some districts may reopen school buildings but then have to close again for a period of time. However, there should be some limits on the percentage of funds that can be spent on virtual learning, proportional to the length of school building closures, and requirements that virtual learning efforts include extra supports for at-risk students. The American Federation of Teachers and the nonprofit advocacy group the Education Trust have both called for federal investment to support this purpose.38
  • Increase funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers. In addition, there should also be increased federal funding for community-based summer and afterschool programs by expanding the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers. This program served 2 million students and received $1.25 billion in federal funding in 2020. Additional funding for the program would give existing grantees funds to support new cleaning and safety measures and, in some cases, transition to virtual learning so that they can continue to serve as many students as they safely are able. These organizations can step up alongside school systems to help expand enrichment and learning time, especially in cases when district capacity is limited.

This pandemic has exposed inequities that have long existed and impacted students’ chances of academic success, from basic access to health care, food, and stable housing to digital devices and Internet connections as well as summer and after-school programs. The income-based achievement gap in this country has grown over the past fifty years, a shameful reality that the current crisis is only exacerbating.39 Without federal action, we will see the gaps in opportunity for low-income students, students with disabilities, and English learners continue to grow.

In the short term, federal funding combined with school district and community action can help mitigate some of the negative effects of the COVID-19 crisis for students.40 Additional economic programs aimed at students and their families—such as creating a “jobseekers allowance” for high school and college-age students who will not qualify for normal unemployment insurance41—can also help. And in the long term, COVID-19 should be a wakeup call to the nation’s leaders to reverse trends of widening inequality, by fully funding education and targeting resources to the kids who need it most, expanding government support for learning and enrichment outside the regular school day, and investing in a robust social safety net to attack the root problem of poverty.


  1. Bree Dusseault, Georgia Heyward, Ashley Jochim, and Travis Pillow, “Dear States: Don’t Leave Remote Learning to Chance,” Center on Reinventing Public Education, April 19, 2020,
  2. Michelle Burris and Daniel Weiss, “What Schools Need Now Is Internet for All, and Teachers to the Front,” The Century Foundation, April 30, 2020,
  3. Sue Najm, phone interview with Halley Potter, April 21, 2020.
  4. Noah Garcia, email to Halley Potter, April 17, 2020.
  5. See Harris Cooper, Barbara Nye, Kelly Charlton, James Lindsay, and Scott Greathouse, “The Effects of Summer Vacation on Achievement Test Scores: A Narrative and Meta-Analytic Review,” Review of Educational Research 66, no. 3 (1996): 227–68,; Megan Kuhfeld, “Rethinking summer slide: The more you gain, the more you lose,” Phi Delta Kappan, June 6, 2019,
  6. Megan Kuhfeld and Beth Tarasawa, “The COVID-19 slide: What summer learning loss can tell us about the potential impact of school closures on student academic achievement,” NWEA, April 2020,
  7. Cooper, Nye, Charlton, Lindsay, and Greathouse, “The Effects of Summer Vacation on Achievement Test Scores, “
  8. Karl L. Alexander, Doris R. Entwisle, and Linda Steffel Olson, “Lasting Consequences of the Summer Learning Gap,” American Sociological Review 72, no. 2 (April 2007): 167–80,
  9. Noah Garcia, email to Halley Potter, April 17, 2020.
  10. “MS 245 The Computer School,” Inside Schools,
  11. Diamond Skinner, phone interview with Halley Potter, April 17, 2020.
  12. Jeremy Redford, Stephanie Burns, L. Jane Hall, and John Ralph, “The Summer After Kindergarten: Children’s Experiences by Socioeconomic Characteristics,” National Center for Education Statistics, NCES 2018–160, May 2018, 8, 18,
  13. Noah Garcia, email to Halley Potter, April 17, 2020.
  14. See Jennifer Sloan McCombs, Catherine H. Augustine, Heather L. Schwartz et al., Making Summer Count (The RAND Corporation, 2011),; Harris Cooper, Kelly Charlton, Jeff C. Valentine, Laura Muhlenbruck and Geoffrey D. Borman, “Making the Most of Summer School: A Meta-Analytic and Narrative Review,” Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 65, No. 1, (2000),; Amy Ellen Schwartz, Jacob Leos-Urbel, and Matthew Wiswall, “Making Summer Matter: The Impact of Youth Employment on Academic Performance,” National Bureau of Economic Research, NBER Working Paper no. 21470, August 2015,
  15. John Fensterwald, “Summer enrichment programs prove their value,” EdSource,
  16. Michelle Burris, “When Closing Schools during COVID-19, Always Remember the Marginalized,” The Century Foundation, March 26, 2020,
  17. Reema Amin, “NYC Council searching for ways to save summer youth jobs program, Speaker says,” Chalkbeat, April 22, 2020,
  18. Jorge Morales, phone interview with Halley Potter, April 20, 2020.
  19. Sue Najm, phone interview with Halley Potter, April 21, 2020.
  20. Karleny Ramos, phone interview with Halley Potter, April 20, 2020.
  21. Kalyn Belsha, “Voluntary or mandatory? Remote or in person? Districts grapple with summer school logistics, equity questions,” Chalkbeat, May 4, 2020,
  22. David M. Quinn and Morgan Polikoff, “Summer learning loss: What is it, and what can we do about it?” Brookings Institution, September 14, 2017,
  23. Karleny Ramos, phone interview with Halley Potter, April 20, 2020.
  24. Jorge Morales, phone interview with Halley Potter, April 20, 2020.
  25. “2020 Summer Programming Supporting Youth Through the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Campaign for Summer Jobs,
  26. Andre Perry, “Every student needs summer school this year to combat coronavirus learning loss,” The Hechinger Report, April 28, 2020,
  27. Kelsey Bakken, Emily Katz, Will Matthews, and Laura A. Schifter, “Special Education and COVID-19 School Closures,” The Century Foundation, April 7, 2020,
  28. Michael J. Petrilli, “Schools should consider keeping kids in the same grade this fall,” Washington Post, April 6, 2020,
  29. Laura Meckler, Valerie Strauss, and Joe Heim, “Millions of public school students will suffer from school closures, education leaders have concluded,” Washington Post, April 13, 2020,
  30. Halley Potter and Michelle Burris, “Should Gifted Students Be In Separate Classrooms?” The Century Foundation, December 12, 2019,
  31. Joshua Starr, phone interview with Halley Potter, April 20, 2020.
  32. Charlotte Steinecke, “New Poll: 3 in 4 Programs Have Changed How They Operate During Covid-19,” Afterschool Alliance, April 20, 2020,
  33. Joshua Starr, phone interview with Halley Potter, April 20, 2020.
  34. Michael Griffith, “COVID-19 and School Funding: What to Expect and What You Can Do,” The Learning Policy Institute, April 20, 2020,
  35. “What’s Good, and What’s Missing, in Congress’ Third COVID-19 Emergency Response Package,” The Century Foundation, March 26, 2020,
  36. Riley Yates, “Will N.J. schools reopen this year? And other burning education questions tackled.”, Apr 09, 2020,
  37. “We Talked To LAUSD Officials about the Budget, Grades, and Summer School,” LAIST, April 21, 2020,
  38. John King and Randi Weingarten, “What Comes Next for Public Schooling,” The Hill, April 24, 2020,
  39. Sean F. Reardon, “The Widening Income Achievement Gap,” Educational Leadership 70, no. 8 (May 2013): 10–16,
  40. “We Need a COVID-19 Phase 4 Relief Package. Here’s What Should Be In It.” The Century Foundation, April 9, 2020,
  41. Jen Mishory and Andrew Stettner, “Unemployment Insurance and Young People in the Wake of COVID-19, The Century Foundation, April 23, 2020,