America’s school children are falling behind. They have been trailing their European and Asian counterparts in grade school for some time, but our nation’s management of Covid-19 has widened the gap further. One study from McKinsey and Company estimates that by June students will have lost on average 5 to 9 months of learning by June.
The situation in high poverty areas is even worse. According to a Rand Corporation study, 33 percent of teachers in the highest-poverty schools said that their students were significantly less prepared than last school year.
And while the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines offer some hope that we will eventually return to normalcy, their impact will likely not be enough to save the current school year.
But we can act to help our schoolchildren catch up—and give parents some needed relief—by offering free summer school for children grades K through 8.
Some forward looking school districts are already moving in this direction. Harrisonburg Virginia is creating a new program where families can voluntarily enroll their students in grades K-8 into a summer remediation program to help them get caught back up on their studies.
Offering summer school to any student who wants to go would have a cost but it would not be overly expensive. The benefits for teachers are already paid for and the school facilities already exist. But even so, the federal government could step in and help school districts make this happen by offering teachers a financial incentive—$10,000 in immediate debt relief from student loans.
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According to data from 2012, undergraduate education majors—who represent about 9 out of 10 students in traditional teacher-training programs nationwide, and make up 70 percent of the teaching population—have about $26,792 of student loan debt on average.
While there are an array of student loan forgiveness programs, Jason Delisle and Alexander Holt note that “these programs are difficult to navigate and access, with competing sets of rules that affect borrowers in ways that are hard to predict.” They are also not as generous as they seem and take considerable time to reap the benefits. For example, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program wipes out all outstanding student-loan debt, but only after 10 cumulative years of monthly payments while the teacher is working at a public or nonprofit school.
Under this plan, teachers who work full-time over the summer at public schools would be eligible to receive up to $10,000 in immediate loan forgiveness for federal student debt. The loan forgiveness would be contingent upon their completion of their summer teaching load and certification by the participating school district.
The proposal would also help parents, many of whom have struggled to earn a living and help their children with their online and virtual classes during the pandemic, by giving them a no-cost education option this summer for their kids.
To protect any teachers and students who are not vaccinated by the summer, classes could be held outside on school grounds or in other public spaces. School districts that wish to participate would submit a plan that would include how many students could be accommodated and how many teachers would participate.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought tragedy and serious harm. In some cases, the damage may be irreparable. But we can still help our school children get back on track (and erase a significant amount of student debt for teachers), by offering summer school this year to any child that needs it.