When students returned to Schenectady school buildings for the summer enrichment program in July, they did what students do: found their friends.
“The first few days they were so excited,” said Chad Sitts, the summer site leader at Howe Elementary School. “It was great to see, it brought back that sense of normal again of what a school building should be.”
For many of the students, it was their first time back in school buildings since pandemic restrictions shuttered them across the state in March 2020.
“I was very sad because I couldn’t see my friends anymore,” said Sanai Fossett as she and other students dug through compost to find worms on Wednesday. “My happiest day (this summer) was when I got to see my friends and teachers.”
Over 1,300 students across the district are spending part of the summer catching up with friends and teachers, gardening, swimming and getting ready for a school year that will be critical in closing learning gaps that have developed during the pandemic.
The district’s annual summer enrichment program returned to in-person learning this summer after district leaders used a virtual model last year amid still-limiting public health restrictions. Some of those precautions remain in place, but district educators are hoping this summer’s program will serve as a launching point to the new school year, when district leaders plan to welcome all students back to in-person learning on a daily basis.
“We remain committed to doing everything possible to make sure students are in our schools with their teachers,” Anibal Soler, Jr., the district’s new superintendent, wrote in his second weekly update on Friday.
At Howe, nearly 240 students are enrolled in 18 classes. Students must wear masks on the bus, but masks are optional in the classroom; inside classrooms, some students wore masks while the majority kept them close at hand.
“We are still following some COVID guidelines,” said Sitts, who works during the school year as an instructional supervisor in the district.
The summer program was originally established to provide students extended learning over the summer, including a variety of camp-like outdoor activities, and combat the so-called “summer slide” that leads to some academic regression during the summer for many students. The challenges are even deeper this year as students come off a nearly 18-month period of deeply disrupted learning. Educators working at the summer program said student learning levels appeared even more divergent than in past years. Many students are receiving focused reading instruction.
At the elementary level, reading instruction was made much more difficult by the virtual environment: certain visual cues and the ability to watch mouth movements is important in helping a student learn to read in early grades.
“We knew there was a struggle with phonics,” Sitts said. Phonics is the fundamental step in learning to read that gets young students reading and pronouncing different sounds and letter combinations. Each of the elementary school sites this summer have two teachers focused on working on student reading skills in small groups of just two or three students at a time.
Johnnye Jackson, a special education teacher who is working as one of the two reading specialists at Howe this summer, was working with a pair of students on Wednesday, asking them to tap out the sound of different words and plying them with gummy bears after they completed a reading section.
“Tap it out if you are not sure,” Jackson told the students.
Jackson said it was important to work with students this summer and said she was especially focused on building relationships with students, noting the need to transition students back to routines of learning in school buildings.
“It is very important,” Jackson said of working with students over the summer. She emphasized the need to address the social and emotional needs of students as well; students will need to feel safe and supported returning to school if they are going to be able to learn effectively.
Addressing emotional needs
“It’s all supporting them to be prepared for the school year,” Jackson said. “It’s important to build those relationships and have those connections with students to get them to buy being in school, because a lot of them have not been in school since March 2020.”
Jackson, who is working with a small number of students at a time, said students present a wide variety of different academic needs.
“They are all at so many different levels,” Jackson said.
Each of the elementary schools also has a pair of social workers who visit classrooms to help students discuss their feelings — about the challenges of the pandemic, about returning to school, about stuff elementary school kids always want to talk through — and engage with classmates.
“What do you do when you get angry?” Social worker Asha Evans asked, working with students to articulate different feelings and emotions. “When you’re angry what helps you calm down?”
“I turn on the TV and watch ‘Power Rangers’ or one of my favorite shows,” one of the students said.
“That social-emotional piece is huge when you are coming off a pandemic and kids have been at home,” Sitts said. “We are giving kids the chance to share what it has been like for them.”
The summer enrichment program also makes sure to focus on the “summer” part of the program: students go swimming twice a week and spend part of each day playing sports or doing other wellness-focused activities. Other activities take kids to visit local community organizations or bring those organizations into the schools.
Students have visited the New York State Museum and the Viaport Aquarium, while miSci and other organizations have led activities in the schools. Students have worked in school gardens across the district, learning about fresh produce and soil health.
“We get to see the worms in real life,” said 8-year-old Laira Roscoe at Howe, holding a worm teetering on a pencil tip.
Oneida Middle School students on Wednesday played badminton in one part of the school’s outdoor fields, while other students attempted to make ice cream in a shaded corner of the outdoor area.
Over 100 middle school students are spending time in the building this summer. Educators are working with students on a variety of academic subjects through game-based learning programs and lessons that center around different types of projects. Like at the elementary schools, teachers and social workers are working with older students to ease students back into the realities of school, while seeking to address academic needs.
“We hope this program is helping our students transition back to the school year,” said Angela Zotta, the Oneida summer site leader and a teacher in the district eyeing a possible move to administration. “Some kids haven’t been in the building since March 2020.”
Zotta also focused on the importance of attending to students’ mental and social well-being as a precursor to their learning this coming school year.
“For many students, they have not had that social interaction piece with other students,” Zotta said.
In a classroom of rising eighth-graders who were working on a game design project, a group of middle school boys rekindled social interaction the old-fashioned way: debating their favorite basketball players.
“It’s actually fun,” student Jacob Santos said of the summer program. “We make jokes, watch videos, play around. At home I felt isolated. Now I can catch up with people.”