PANDEMIC LOSSESAn Experiment to Fight Pandemic-Era Learning Loss Launches in Richmond

By Alec MacGillis

Published 23 August 2023

After intense opposition and skepticism, two elementary schools opened 20 days early to help students make up for what they missed during the time of remote learning. The first question: Would kids show up in the middle of summer for extra schooling?

The scene outside Fairfield Court Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia, at 7:40 last Thursday morning was so festive that one might have assumed it was the first day of school. Upbeat music blared from a speaker on the sidewalk. Sgt. Edward R. Gore II, the school’s “climate and culture specialist,” the district’s term for its school resource officers, opened his arms to the kindergartners and first graders who came running toward him, as well as to some who wavered. Also on hand to greet children and parents was the principal, Angela Wright.

But in fact, the first day of school was receding in the distance: Fairfield Court was one of two local schools that had started the year on July 24, as part of a hotly contested trial: adding 20 days to the customary 180, to help make up ground lost after Richmond kept schools closed to in-person learning for 18 months during the pandemic. Families had only six weeks of summer vacation — closer to the European norm than the American one — before kids returned, and Wright and her staff were doing everything they could to make early-August school seem welcoming. Thus, the daily embraces and music, with a track list chosen by Gore.

“It brings a smile to put on their face every morning,” he said. “I’m out here every day.”

Beneath the good cheer of the greetings were weighty implications. The results of the 200-day academic years at Fairfield and Cardinal elementary schools will help determine whether Richmond adopts a similar approach at more schools across the 22,000-student district. For nearly three years, district leaders have been proposing to add days to the school calendar for some or all students or keep the same number of days but with a shorter summer break, to reduce what educators call “summer slide.” But, as ProPublica recently reported, that plan ran into stiff resistance from some school board members, teachers and parents. In the end, only two of the district’s 50-odd schools adopted the extended calendar for the coming year.

The pilot is being watched more widely too, as one of the highest-profile examples nationwide of schools taking aggressive action to address the unprecedented declines in student achievement since the pandemic’s onset.