After a year of remote, hybrid and socially distanced learning, Hamilton County Schools' Summer REACH program will begin its first session next week. With more funding, state requirements and changes to health guidance for COVID-19, the program has modified certain criteria for students and teachers.
Last year, Summer REACH acted in part as a "soft reopening" for schools in Hamilton County to test safety protocols and address the needs of at-risk learners, said Deputy Superintendent Nakia Towns.
"We stood up Summer REACH on our own as a district, it was our idea, and we had come off of a year where we had closed down school for the full last quarter. So this was our return to school, having not been in school since March 13," Towns said.
This year, Towns said, the goal is to reinforce concepts taught in the previous school year and introduce new ones for the upcoming year in a more normal school environment. Additionally, last year's program required masks and social distancing, while this year, the requirement will be lifted following the district's decision to make masks optional starting June 1.
The program has grown in part due to measures passed by the state Legislature during a special session in January. Requirements include dedicated time for English language arts, math and physical education each day, and a six-hour day, five-day-per-week schedule for summer learning camps and learning loss bridge camps.
The length of each day has been extended this year for grades K-5, which met for half days Monday-Thursday last year and will now meet Monday-Friday from 8:30 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. Middle and high school students will continue the four-day schedule and meet from 8:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.
Giselle Palmer, a teacher at East Side Elementary School, taught during Summer REACH last year. She said the program went well and acted as a good trial run for teaching in the fall after being out of school for four months.
"I wanted the opportunity to get back in the classroom, help some of our struggling students get caught up and sort of do a trial run of what pandemic teaching was going to be like, because we really had no idea what it was going to be like, and I figured it would be a great trial run for me to do it in July. It was only three weeks to practice and learn what I needed to know to be successful the following school year," Palmer said.
However, she will not be teaching this summer and said the main reason is the extended length of the days.
"So the other big difference this year was that elementary teachers were going to have to work five days a week, and full days, like seven-and-a-half hour days, which is your typical 35-to-40 hour week when you figure in the duty times and everything," Palmer said. "That was my main reason for saying 'nah' because, number one, it's been a really difficult year, it's been very draining and I needed the break, but also, it was going to be full work schedule, it wasn't going to be half days, it wasn't going to be four days a week, it was going to be full schedule work."
The length of the program itself has extended, with the initial Summer REACH held for three weeks last July while this year's program will consist of two three-week sessions. Students do not have to attend both sessions.
The program has grown from last year, with any student eligible to enroll this summer. Attendance last year was about 1,500 students and 300 teachers. Of the 2,000 students enrolled last year, about 1,500 attended, Towns said.
The gap in enrollment vs. attendance appeared in Palmer's class last year.
"Last year when we had signups and we had 10 kids registered in each class, and then they didn't all show up and I don't know if that's because of people being nervous about a pandemic, or people deciding they got busy or they just didn't want to do it after all," Palmer said. "So you don't really know until it gets started how many kids you're going to have in a summer program, because last year I had 10 kids on my roster and I think seven of them ended up coming."
This year, there are about 6,200 students and 700 staff members signed up, and the program spans 41 sites throughout the district.
Funding last year came entirely from the first round of federal coronavirus relief money, while this year's Summer REACH funding comes from federal money and state money from the January special session, Towns said.
Compensation differs for teachers who signed up for this year's program.
Last year, teachers were paid a flat rate of $40 per hour, and classified staff such as teaching assistants earned the higher amount between $20 per hour or their normal hourly rate.
This year, teachers will earn a 15% higher hourly rate than what they earn during the school year, while classified staff with their own classrooms will earn the higher amount between $20 per hour or their current rate plus 15%, Towns said.
Palmer said the pay was good last year and she would make more money this year, but that she opted out of teaching for the program because of the full-time schedule and to do other things this summer.
"The elementary teachers are getting paid more because it's more hours than it was last year, and I'm an elementary teacher, so I could have made over $10,000 if I worked both sessions," Palmer said. "But to me, I needed the break more than I needed the money, and last year, all of the reasons that I chose to work last year, I wanted to see what pandemic teaching was like. I'd been out of the classroom for a really long time, and it was half days, it wasn't like a real long commitment, those are all the reasons why I was interested last year and not interested this year."
Summer REACH begins June 7, with the first session running June 7-25 and the second session running July 7-27.
Contact Anika Chaturvedi at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592.