Parents of school-age kids consistently tell us that they are longing for more joy, fun, socialization, and engagement in their children’s lives. Schools have done a remarkable job of managing unprecedented challenges and making the best of a bad situation these last couple of pandemic years, and we all want kids to catch up and do well academically. But we also know that too many kids have missed out on afterschool programs that offer stimulating learning opportunities in such areas as rocketry, cooking, mentoring, and civic engagement, and they’ve missed out on summer camps that expose them to new environments and provide team-building with peers.

Just as schools have stepped up, afterschool and summer programs have done all they can to sustain these opportunities outside the school day during the pandemic. But there’s much more to do. So now, as we approach the third summer amidst COVID-19, the gradual return to normalcy must be accompanied by a push to help students get back on track academically as well as socially. According to “Covid-19 and Education: The Lingering Effects of Unfinished Learning,” an analysis by McKinsey & Company, “The impact of the pandemic on K–12 student learning was significant, leaving students on average five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading by the end of the school year. The pandemic widened preexisting opportunity and achievement gaps, hitting historically disadvantaged students hardest.” There is no question that the challenge we face is daunting.

The good news is that in districts across the nation, the work of helping students recover lost ground, academically and socially, is well underway. Working in partnership with innovative and dedicated school leaders and teachers, the out-of-school-time (OST) community has learned important lessons about what works. To begin, it’s important to acknowledge that there are no silver bullets to fast track success. Disrupted learning time is a very real problem. So, just as teachers are trying to compensate by squeezing every minute of learning time out of every hour in class that they’ve got, we need to use every opportunity we have to help kids learn—during the school day, to be sure, but also before school, after school, and during the summer.

Partnerships Are Key

To make that happen, we need meaningful partnerships between schools and various community organizations positioned to help. Of course, it’s important for principals to make careful decisions about potential partner organizations. But once that hurdle is cleared, it should be all-hands-on-deck for our kids. Smart partnerships are critical to the work that’s ahead, and among the most critical partnerships that school leaders can forge are those with afterschool and summer learning programs. Research demonstrates that well-structured, well-attended OST programs can help students progress academically and boost their social and emotional health.

For school leaders, the advantages of successful OST partnerships are clear:

  • More expansive thinking about community partnerships will increase the number of students served and enhance student interest and engagement. Principals should consider reaching out to the broader range of youth-serving, community-based organizations, parks and recreation agencies, libraries, museums, arts and cultural groups, affordable housing organizations, colleges, and local employers. Such organizations all have reason and resolve to step up to help.
  • By tapping partners’ resources, facilities, and volunteers, principals can provide active, hands-on learning experiences.
  • By taking advantage of the unique time and space opportunities that OST programs offer, principals can help support student mastery. Focused time on task gives students the practice they need to get exceptionally good at what they’re doing.
  • By engaging partners and students to help develop and design quality afterschool and summer programs, principals can help students learn vital team-building skills and engage in their communities while building relationships, learning to resolve differences, and encouraging youth ownership.
  • With help from partners, principals can encourage students to learn a variety of new skills, discover a range of career fields, and consider a broader range of college options.

Partners can help fill gaps that many school districts are hard-pressed to fill on their own. They can provide facilities, engage a community-based youth-development workforce, provide a broad range of enrichment activities and, critically, provide transportation for students.

The Role of COVID-Relief Funding

Helping facilitate this work is the American Rescue Plan Act—the pandemic relief bill that Congress passed and President Biden signed into law last year—which, among other things, provides funding to create and expand OST programs. As a part of the law, 20% of the funds given to school districts and 5% of education funds received at the state level are set aside to address learning loss through evidence-based interventions, such as summer learning or summer enrichment, extended day, comprehensive afterschool programs, or extended school year programs.

Much of that funding has already made it to schools and OST programs. As a result, more districts and community partners are joining forces to give parents, students, and schools what they want and need: a safe place for students to accelerate their learning while socializing with peers, experiencing enrichment, gaining life skills, connecting with additional community resources, forming relationships with caring adults, and discovering and following their passions.

Appropriately, the specifics vary from community to community. Some cities, such as New Orleans, offer career exposure, paid work experience, and credentialing. Some districts have planned for full days of summer learning with teacher-led tutoring in the mornings and enrichment through community partnerships in the afternoon. Some districts have created brand new afterschool programs with federal funding, while others have expanded existing programs and partnerships. For example, a district in Delaware is using relief funds for a “coordinated response” by partnering with Boys & Girls Clubs, United Ways, and their Latin American Community Center, among others. Such efforts aren’t rocket science, except when they are—the city of Boston used some of its relief funds to host a free summer rocketry program for girls.

As summer approaches, we can turn toward programs that offer in-person opportunities for learning, reengagement, social connectedness, and enrichment. In summer programs, students and OST providers can look forward to science through animal husbandry, math through boating, English through SLAM poetry, and so much more. In short, a summer of learning that feels like fun.

Looking to the Future

Even as they work to create or expand OST programs with American Rescue Plan funding, school leaders are well advised to contemplate how to sustain this essential programming when pandemic funding expires. One crucial step will be to gather hard data before and after participation in OST programs on children’s academic progress, in-school behavior, attendance, and more, to lay the foundation for funding down the road—from local businesses and philanthropies or via local, state, or federal funding streams. In addition to quantitative data, individual success stories can powerfully illustrate how OST programs touch the lives of children and families, and they are well worth capturing for upcoming funding proposals.

Soon the COVID-relief funding will be exhausted. But the partnerships created or expanded because of the pandemic should absolutely live on. We must work together to ensure that they continue to serve children, families, and communities for years to come.

Jodi Grant is the executive director and Erik Peterson is the senior vice president of policy at the Afterschool Alliance. Learn more at