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Summer can be a time to play, dream and explore new things. In the wake of the pandemic, this summer will be more important than ever for students and the schools and organizations that work with them.

That’s why it’s time to embrace both a more comprehensive vision of how and where learning happens and a broader variety of opportunities that truly engage kids and set them up for success — rather than hold on to old notions of “summer school” as a time for catching up.

This summer we face both a challenge and a promise: We are still grappling with overlapping health, social and economic crises; the pandemic has impacted everything from children’s health, education and financial security to their friendships. At the same time, there are now historic levels of federal funding to tackle this multifaceted challenge.

Experts say that the $1.9 trillion in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 could cut child poverty in half. Many districts plan to use this funding to tackle academic learning loss from our pandemic year, but we must also build on what young people have learned during the pandemic, both inside and outside the classroom. There is great consensus among education and youth development experts about how to do this.

First, we cannot help children until we engage them. And we can’t engage them if they’re not in school. This spring, many students are still simply missing from classrooms, both in-person and virtual. According to an October 2020 Bellwether Education report that was updated in March 2021, an estimated 3 million students nationwide have not received any instruction — in-person or virtual — since the beginning of the pandemic.

As the science of learning and development has shown us, all solutions to reengaging students must take into account the stress that affects their health and their ability to learn. Young people, particularly those from marginalized backgrounds, have faced often traumatic levels of stress this year.

Related: Teach like it’s summer school all year long

The goal for summer 2021 should be to fully reengage students in a variety of ways. Yes, they should master essential academic content, but they also need learning opportunities that engage their curiosity, cultivate new interests and support them in alleviating the effects of stress and trauma.

Next, while we help students heal from the traumas of the past year, we can also help them form new relationships. Young people need both, not just one or the other. For decades, community organizations have served as a place where children can build close relationships with trusted adults and peers outside of school or home. These connections can be absolutely vital to ensuring students’ future success and happiness.

It’s time to embrace both a more comprehensive vision of how and where learning happens and a broader variety of opportunities that truly engage kids and set them up for success — rather than hold on to old notions of “summer school” as a time for catching up.

Community partners such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Playworks and others are blurring the line between in-school and out-of-school programming and ensuring that young people are engaged both in learning and building meaningful connections.

Many community partners are increasing their collaboration with other providers, prioritizing the students most impacted by the pandemic and partnering with schools to share lessons learned. As a result, more young people are thriving. School districts should seek out such collaborations, and local and state leaders must invest in such partnerships.

Some school districts are already taking on this charge. In Tulsa, the public schools and The Opportunity Project are partnering to develop expanded learning opportunities for students. Their work together includes components that emphasize relationships, hands-on learning, social-emotional skill building — and fun, too. Their programming this summer will include gardening, biking and debate teams, among other enriching and connecting activities.

Finally, we must make an extra effort to engage teenagers, particularly through jobs and summer internship programs, and especially for those most disconnected from schools.

While the American Rescue Plan provides vast amounts of funding, only a minimal amount directly targets adolescents. A recent C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health found that nearly half of parent respondents said their teen children had a “new or worsening mental health condition” since the pandemic began, and 73 percent said that the pandemic has had a negative impact on their children’s relationships with their friends.

Teenagers must be empowered to share their concerns: Adult leaders should ask what they want and need, amplify their voices and seek out successful models from organizations that engage teens directly in decision-making and program design.

We can’t let precious time go to waste. Let’s use this summer to test innovative ideas, create valuable experiences and reconstruct systems that better support young people. If we respond creatively and collaboratively, we can build our education system back even better than ever, reinventing it as a critical part of a broader learning ecosystem.

Karen Pittman is co-founder and senior fellow at the Forum For Youth Investment, where she is a founding member of the Readiness Projects.

This story about summer learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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