The great catch-up: How Des Moines, districts across the state are using summer school to stem COVID learning loss

Samantha Hernandez
Des Moines Register

Deana Smith is everywhere in her summer school algebra class at North High School in Des Moines.

Smith, who teaches mathematics, appears on students' computer screens in the form of instructional videos she made earlier to assist their learning. At the same time, she's walking around the physical classroom, helping students and encouraging them to stay on task.

Her work this summer, in a classroom where a handful of students are wearing masks, is a reflection of the last school year, as districts, teachers and students dealt with COVID-19 and the pandemic's aftermath. 

Smith and other district staff have stepped up to teach summer school to approximately 3,000 students who are trying to make up for learning lost in a trying year. 

Last year, approximately 1,050 high school students participated in online summer school. This year, district officials expanded the June and July in-person school sessions to include kindergarten through 12th-grade students. 

North High Algebra 1 teacher Deana Smith works with freshman Tyra Smith during a summer school class on Thursday, July 15, 2021 in Des Moines.

The large scale effort is being funded in part by federal money meant to help schools fight the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The newly discovered novel coronavirus closed schools across the country in March 2020 after the World Health Organization declared the virus a global pandemic.  

What followed was a 2020-21 school year interrupted by school closures, switching between online and in-person learning due to the virus spreading through communities, and students and teachers making extraordinary efforts to stay healthy and keep going but some of them still getting sick.

"I don't envy our kids. They went through a lot," Smith said of learning during the pandemic. 

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In past years, the focus of summer school "has been primarily on the high school grade level and, more specifically, a credit recovery effort," said Phil Roeder, Des Moines schools' spokesperson.

This year,  teachers and administrators chose students for summer school who needed to learn key skills or catch up on credits, Roeder said. While the number of summer school students nearly tripled, staffing shortages still limited how many students could take part. 

"(The main) thing is to help students get closer to where they would have been had it been a quote unquote normal school year this past year," he said. "One of the things that this past school year did was exacerbate the gaps that already existed between students."

Related:'There's hope for all these kids': Summer school helps local students regain sense of normalcy

Making up incompletes, credit recovery

Earlier this year, district officials said that a number of students, particularly in high school, were on track to receive failing grades. Around the same time, district officials announced teachers would give incompletes instead of F grades to middle and high school students. 

Student transcripts with incompletes from the 2020-21 school year will include a note "that explains the unique circumstances of learning during a pandemic," said Sarah Dougherty, Des Moines schools director of secondary teaching and learning, at the time. 

The expanded summer school gives attendees a chance to complete those courses. 

During the June summer school session, high school students completed or recovered 1,261 courses, said Mimi Willoughby, Des Moines schools' academic pathways instructional coordinator.

Related:Des Moines students to receive incompletes, not F's, for the 2020-21 school year

But who will teach the students? 

The pandemic made the last school year difficult for educators, and that made filling needed positions for summer school harder, Willoughby said.

The Iowa State Education Association has been expecting an educator shortage for a while. 

Contributing factors include the overall impact of COVID and underfunding of schools to the point where salaries and programming are impacted, said Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association. There is also concern about the impact on teachers and lessons due to a new law that bans school districts from teaching from a list of 10 concepts such as that the U.S. or Iowa is systemically racist.

A review of employment advertisements on the educator job site Teach Iowa by Beranek and others, shows roughly 1,150 open jobs across the state. 

"Which, we believe, is high compared to almost any past year," Beranek said.  

Traditionally, districts have had a hard time filling positions in special education or behavioral interventionists, but now positions in danger of not being filled include third- and fifth-grade teachers, he said. 

It's expected that some schools will open their doors this fall with positions still open, he said.

“We need to maintain high standards here in Iowa, as we always have, to ensure that we have quality educators in our classroom," Beranek said. "We, as a state, need to explore what it is we need to do to recruit and hire the best individuals to be working with our students."

More:Is teaching critical race theory banned in Iowa schools under new law? It depends on who you ask

Some teachers, like Smith, volunteer to teach summer school every year. To help encourage more teachers to do so, the district offered a $500 bonus per summer school session taught. This is the first time the district has offered this type of teaching incentive, Willoughby said. 

More than 150 miles away, Storm Lake Community School District officials faced a similar shortage as it geared up to staff well-attended summer school sessions. 

Last winter, district officials began working with college teaching programs in the state to bring in student teachers, said Storm Lake Superintendent Stacey Cole.  

When summer school started in June, the staff included student teachers from Buena Vista University, University of Northern Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Iowa. 

Storm Lake has offered summer school in the past, but this year the option was open to anyone, Cole said. From 250 to 300 students are expected to attend.

“The No. 1 goal was taking care of (students') mental health and making sure that they had the opportunity to have some social experiences,” she said of the program's goals. “No. 2 was thinking about that unfinished learning piece.”

More:Iowa to stop reporting COVID activity data daily, citing transition to pandemic 'recovery'

Similar to Des Moines, high school students during Storm Lake's two summer sessions are focusing on completing needed classes for graduation. With younger students, Storm Lake is working to ensure they learn critical thinking and problem solving skills.

North High students take an Algebra 1 summer school class with Deana Smith on Thursday, July 15, 2021 in Des Moines.

“We know that we can't teach enough math or reading in four weeks’ time to make up for the time that was lost when schools were closed,” Cole said. 

But having students return to school with those skills will be beneficial. 

And the student teachers also found a benefit: Several have already been hired and will join the district in January.

Both Des Moines and Storm Lake are using money from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds, or CARES Act, to cover the increased cost of summer school. 

This year's expanded summer school option was "absolutely essential" and the right thing to do, Willoughby said. 

“It's not like we can just push pause and then everyone goes back to that grade they left a year and a half ago,” she said. 

Samantha Hernandez covers education for the Register. Reach her at (515) 851-0982 or Follow her on Twitter at @svhernandez or Facebook at