An infusion of $75 million in federal aid will boost Minnesota school districts' summer school offerings this year, though it may be coming too late for some to dramatically expand their programs.
School leaders, eager to use the summer break to help students catch up and regroup after the chaotic pandemic school year, have spent months making big plans — and waiting for state officials to deliver on promises of extra support. Last week, a state budget deal between Gov. Tim Walz and leaders in the Legislature set aside money for summer school out of a larger pot of Minnesota's pandemic relief aid from the federal government.
Now, with just weeks to go before many of the programs begin, school leaders are in a final sprint to sort out how to best use the additional funds, overcome widespread staffing shortages and sign up a larger-than-normal number of students. Some are confident that they'll be able to deliver on Walz's vision of this summer as a chance to close gaps and tackle the year's losses with ambitious class offerings, activities and mental health support. Others, like Farmington Area Public Schools Superintendent Jason Berg, say they're going to do their best — but are wary of overpromising.
"I'm happy we got the money," he said, "but we start in like three weeks."
Berg said his district will use its share of the additional money — about $228,000 — to expand summer field trips and is exploring how it could help to address students' social and emotional needs. The Watertown-Mayer school district, on the western edge of the metro, will use some of its nearly $42,000 share to offer transportation to summer school students, something it typically lacks the funding to do. Minneapolis Public Schools, set to receive about $1.7 million, will add special-education teachers, English-language instructors and social workers to help students at each building.
But those districts, and others, may end up stashing some of the money away for next summer. Schools can use it until August 2022, and some school leaders said they'll need extra time to launch some of the ambitious types of programs — like business and community partnerships for mentoring and tutoring — envisioned by Walz and other state leaders.
Districts shaped their 2021 summer plans primarily around the state and local funding they get every year. They knew federal money was coming, but without specifics few were willing to start hiring teachers or dramatically increasing summer enrollment in case their calculations were off, or the funds were delayed.
Hopkins Public Schools, which will get about $273,000, expects to enroll about 20% more students than usual this summer. Alex Fisher, the district's community education and engagement director, said school leaders are still sorting out how they'll make use of the money.
But he said they are also wrestling with an even bigger question: Can they find enough teachers who want to work this summer? There are more students interested in summer school than teachers available to teach them, so the district has started putting students on a waiting list.
That's a similar story in districts across the state, where teachers and others who work in schools are looking for a break after a chaotic year.
"Staff are burned out," said Watertown-Mayer Superintendent Darren Schuler. "There's definitely a level of fatigue from the school year, and rightfully so."
Schuler said his district is boosting summer school enrollment by about 25% this year, and has almost found enough teachers — but is still working on hiring.
In the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district, set to receive about $1 million to help with summer school, spokesman Tony Taschner said staffing continues to be a struggle. The district is moving forward with plans to expand some of its programs, like its "Camp Propel" for elementary students, but it doesn't yet have enough teachers signed on.
"We've got work to do," he said.
Minneapolis Public Schools, meanwhile, has staff and programs ready to go, but not enough students. The district has doubled the length of a program for students with special needs from three to six weeks, linked up with community organizations to offer more after-school programs, added bus routes and boosted the number of teachers staffing high school credit recovery programs. But the district only has about 2,000 students signed up for its elementary and middle school programs — about half of the number who attended summer school before the pandemic.
Daren Johnson, the district's director of extended learning, said some families seem to want a break from school after the stress of the last year. Others have health and safety concerns.
Minneapolis, like most districts, plans to offer the bulk of its summer programs in person. That's a big change for many families in the city, where schools spent much of the year in distance learning and many students opted to finish out the year at home, even as school buildings reopened.
It's not yet clear what — if any — COVID-19 safety measures will be required in schools this summer. The state's plan that required schools to take precautions like mask wearing and distancing is set to expire at the end of this school year, and state health and education officials are working on new guidance for schools for the summer.
Minnesota Department of Education spokeswoman Ashleigh Norris said the state will continue to recommend that unvaccinated people — including children under age 12, who are not yet able to receive COVID-19 vaccines — wear masks. But she said schools and districts will be left to make their own decisions about masks, social distancing and other safety measures.
In Minneapolis, Johnson said the district is working to tell families about their safety precautions, like providing classroom supplies to each student, instead of expecting them to share. But school leaders are also emphasizing that summer school isn't just about catching up, or assessing who has fallen behind, or how. More important, he said, is using the summer to sort out how to "assist students, families and staff in healing."
"It's not all about the learning loss," he said. "We're really focusing on celebrating the successes. We've survived this pandemic, we've learned things we never thought would be possible."
Erin Golden • 612-673-4790