Summer school an option for Arizona students struggling through pandemic


Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misquoted Tempe Elementary School District spokesperson Brittany Franklin, administrators there were not discussing whether to make summer school mandatory.

PHOENIX – Before the pandemic, second-grader Melody Wiseley loved going to school. But for the past year, her life has consisted of Zoom classes and social distancing. The mundane, taken-for-granted moments she once shared with friends in the lunchroom and on the playground are cherished memories.

Her grandmother, Heidi Aranda, who is the senior director of curriculum development for Tucson Unified School District, noticed her granddaughter’s struggles over the past year. One likely remedy is summer school, which is not mandatory in Arizona, but districts are offering more classes this year to help students who struggled remotely catch up.

“She has struggled a bit with the online instruction,” Aranda said of Melody. “She is very social and she interacts with people all the time, so this has been hard for her.”

She said the learning experience in her home is different from most because her daughter – Jacqueline Aranda, who teaches in Tucson Unified – and her granddaughter live with her. But despite the teacher powerhouse, it can still be difficult to keep Melody on track.

“It’s hard because there are times where there is support at home and there’s times where there isn’t support at home,” Heidi Aranda said.

Melody isn’t the only student who struggles with remote learning.

Noting that other families face similar challenges, Gov. Doug Ducey on Wednesday ordered schools to reopen March 15, saying more than half the state’s schools already are open and offering in-person instruction. The order says schools must offer full in-person instruction if a county’s transmission rates of COVID-19 are low enough to allow it, and keep virtual learning available where needed.

Schools also will need to help students overcome the learning challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Tucson Unified and other districts are providing additional summer school opportunities for students to catch up and be prepared for the next year.

Even with incentives and being able to do group work on Zoom with her peers, Melody “will need additional support,” Aranda said.

Many states are making summer school mandatory for students who have fallen behind. In Arizona, this decision is up to each school district. Tucson Unified and other Arizona districts have targeted programs for certain grade groups that will take place over the summer, such as Tucson Unified’s July Jump Start program – which targets students who are passing to a new level, such as sixth to seventh grade – and the June Summer Academy.

“Any student that is in danger of being retained by the state will be asked to do summer school,” Aranda said.

The Scottsdale Unified School District will hold regular summer school classes for a discounted rate, as well as a program called Summer Bridge. Nancy Norman, the district’s acting public information officer, said the upcoming fourth quarter is key to help the students who have not thrived in remote learning.

“The fourth quarter that starts on March 15th is going to be crucial,” she said. “There’s still time to do significant interventions with students.”

At the Tempe Elementary School District, Brittany Franklin, the director of strategic partnerships and communication, said officials still are discussing summer school plans.

Aranda said the most important thing is meeting students where they stand academically and working to help them grow in their academic careers.

“We don’t want our summer schools to be punitive or say, ‘Hey, you’re not doing well, so you have to do summer school,” Aranda said. “We want our summer school to be an experience where they learn math and literature but where they reengage in learning.”

And although summer programs are focused on math and reading skills, Tucson Unified also is providing social-emotional components in the lessons. Teachers will start classes, she said, by “engaging with kids about something personal.”

“A lot of what is going on here has to do with our kids’ social and emotional well-being,” Aranda said. “We can’t just focus on academics, we have to really be concerned with the whole child.”

Although many students will be back in their classroom environment for the last few months of the school year, the year-long struggles they’ve had with online instruction will affect any type of learning going forward.

Tempe Elementary School District teacher Beth Lewis said that despite the struggles with remote and hybrid learning, students have done very well.

“I want to push back on the idea that kids are not learning if they are virtual or that schools are closed,” Lewis said. “We are very much open and our students are doing an incredible job.”