More Minnesota students may be signing up for summer school to make up the ground they lost during this unpredictable school year.

Districts and charter schools around the state are set to receive a share of the federal COVID-19 aid package approved last month, which included $54 billion for K-12 schools nationwide. Local school administrators expect to use at least some of it to target "learning loss" resulting from the pandemic.

Some hope to provide additional help to students this spring with after-school and weekend programs, or additional staff. But they are also looking to create or expand their summer school offerings, programs that are typically limited to a relatively small group of students.

Erin Rathke, assistant superintendent of Eastern Carver County Schools, said she's hopeful more opportunities for in-person instruction this spring will help get students up to speed. But she said districts will need to rethink and expand the way they've traditionally offered extra support, including in the summer.

"It can't be business as usual," she said.

Because districts don't have specifics yet on the additional funding, most haven't firmed up their plans for summer. Many typically offer summer programs only to a relatively small number of students who need to make up lost credits, or have specific academic needs. But this year, they hope to broaden the size of those offerings and expand the summer school calendar.

That will be the case in the Moorhead school district, where Superintendent Brandon Lunak said extending the school year could be critical for students who have largely disconnected from school during periods of distance learning.

"With what our kids are experiencing now, anything we can do to get them some support over the summer [will help] attack that learning loss positively as well," he said.

In the Esko school district, southwest of Duluth, superintendent Aaron Fischer said he's particularly concerned about two groups of students: seniors at risk of not graduating this spring, and young elementary students who have struggled to learn to read at home, on computer screens.

Typically, nearly all high school seniors who start the school year in Esko graduate in the spring. But this year, Fischer said, 10 to 15% of seniors are struggling and may not be able to earn their diplomas.

"Where we're seeing the biggest loss is with the kids who don't tune in [for distance learning] at all," he said.

Jason Sellars, who coordinates targeted services programs for the Burnsville school district, said a larger share of students could benefit from extra help. That's why the district has already expanded its after-school programs to include kindergarten, first- and second-graders — something it hadn't done in the past — and developed "curriculum kits" that are sent home to students to help with hands-on lessons when classes are primarily online.

"Because every child has had their learning disrupted … it's incumbent on us to try to program to meet those students where they're at," he said.

At the Minnesota Math and Science Academy, a K-12 charter school in St. Paul, Executive Director Murat Oguz said many students have rebounded from last spring's chaotic entry into distance learning and adapted to the new realities of this school year.

Still, he said the school plans to expand its typical two-week summer school program to six weeks, and open it up to more students — something it did for the first time last summer, after the first months of distance learning.

But Oguz said educators are also concerned about the losses and challenges students have faced outside of their studies. He said schools can't expect students to catch up or succeed academically if their other needs aren't being met.

"We know how much of a toll this period has taken on our students, so even when we come back to summer school, that is going to be our priority areas: the social-emotional well-being of our students," he said.

Looking beyond grades

Some teachers worry that the heightened focus on learning losses, especially when measured primarily by grades or test scores, will ultimately be a disservice to students.

Angela Osuji, a science teacher at Washburn High School in Minneapolis, said additional help for students could be useful — as long as it wasn't just more of the same type of instruction offered during the school year.

She said school leaders should be thinking just as much about the importance of what students have learned during a challenging year that will serve them well in school and in life. Especially in Minneapolis, which experienced waves of unrest last year following George Floyd's death, Osuji said students have shown tremendous resilience in making their way through multiple, ongoing traumatic events.

"Despite everything, they are still showing up [for school]," she said. "So I don't know why we wouldn't celebrate those aspects of their existence."

Virginia Mancini, an English teacher at Mahtomedi Middle School, has similar concerns. She said schools should be focused first on addressing students' mental and emotional health and resist letting outdated or "unfair" types of measurements, like test scores, be the barometer for how much students have succeeded or failed.

Mancini said her students have made major strides in their ability to use technology, work independently and problem-solve. She recently taught her seventh-graders how to draft a business-style e-mail — an important life skill she said won't show up on any typical measure of academic growth.

"We all focused on how much we lost," she said of the last year, "but we gained some things, too."

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790