As state lawmakers try to sort out when students can go back to school full time, members of the House are sponsoring a bill that would offer a voluntary summer school program for North Carolina students.

House Republicans held a news conference Tuesday, Feb. 16, to discuss their bill, which allows local school districts to develop their own plans but holds certain requirements – students must be offered instruction at least five hours a day for five days a week over six weeks this summer, and lunch and physical activity must be incorporated into the school day.

Included in the news conference were House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland; Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston; Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, R-Wilkes; and Rep. Jeff Zenger, R-Forsyth. 

The legislation, Summer Learning Choice for N.C. Families, requires minimum standards for grade-level course offerings. Students in fourth through eighth grades, for example, must receive instruction in math, reading and science, as well as at least one enrichment activity such as music or arts.

The school proposal has its critics, including policy experts with the John Locke Foundation.

“The House summer school legislation is a start; however, there are problems,” said Bob Luebke, senior fellow at Locke’s Center for Effective Education. “Learning loss estimates in mathematics for minority kids are in the 12- to 16-month range. It’s a stretch to think that the deficit will be made up in six weeks in summer.

“The larger problem,” Luebke said, “is that learning loss varies significantly by income, race, and geography. Such realities don’t fit well into a broad-based summer school solution.”

He says Education Savings Accounts — or ESAs — are a better solution.

“ESAs provide parents with the ability to access the individualized services their child needs,” Luebke said. “Parents can use funds from the account to pay for educational expenses and ensure their child is receiving the best education possible.”

Some school districts in the state remain closed for in-person instruction after Gov. Roy Cooper ordered them shuttered in March during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moore said some students are falling behind, since many have had to learn remotely for nearly a year. He pointed out that some concepts are harder to grasp through virtual learning rather than in-classroom instruction. 

Moore also emphasized that while some parents can afford tutoring, “many of our more at-risk children can’t afford that option.”

That’s one reason the program prioritizes students that local districts identify as being at risk of most falling behind, although other students can attend as long as space is available. 

“We want to give these kids the ability to get caught up,” Moore said.

Elmore, who is also a teacher, said he knows students who are lost in the current educational system, falling behind due to remote learning.

“Learning loss is a critical issue and I’m not saying this is a magic bullet,” but it’s an important step, he said.

Torbett said he hopes the bill can quickly move through the Legislature.

“The faster we get this passed, the faster we can get this [program] rolling,” he said. 

This legislation comes as the House and Senate finalize Senate Bill 37, which would require school districts to reopen for some in-person learning. 

As Carolina Journal reported, the two chambers were required reach a compromise on a bill to send to Cooper. A House version of the bill added language that could require school districts to make reasonable work accommodations for teachers more at-risk for COVID or who take care of children more susceptible to the virus.

The Senate approved the final deal, 31-16, Tuesday afternoon. Three Democratic senators voted with every Republican in favor of the bill.

Moore suggested during the summer school legislation press conference that a final House vote on S.B. 37 could be taken on Wednesday.