Typically, as the school year comes to a close, many educators’ and parents’ thoughts turn to how they can stem summer slide, or the learning loss associated with students’ being away from school—a key access point for books—during summer vacation. But in the wake of all the disruptions that school districts nationwide have experienced during the Covid-19 crisis, concerns about students’ pandemic learning loss and students’ and educators’ social-emotional well-being have also mounted. As educators, students, and parents gear up to meet these challenges, many publishers, ed tech companies, libraries, and nonprofits are expanding their traditional summer reading offerings and/or creating new tools to help.

The companies PW spoke with unanimously named two key elements of effective summer reading programs: access to books—in print and/or digital formats—and the opportunity for students to choose their own reading materials. Research has long supported the importance of these two factors. According to the Kids & Family Reading Report 7th Edition from Scholastic, conducted in 2019, for example, 53% of kids access books they read for fun from school, and 50% of kids get them from the public library. And for most kids, schools are the least-available access point for books during the summer.

The same report finds that parents also focus on book access and choice when they encourage summer reading at home. Fifty-four percent of parents said that taking trips to public libraries was one of the top strategies to bolster their kids’ efforts. That was closely followed by ordering from school book clubs or book fairs (42%) and taking books on road trips for vacations (42%). And 70% of kids ages six to 17 participating in the survey noted that they like summer reading because, “I get to read whenever/whatever I want.” A companion study titled Teacher & Principal Report, conducted in 2020, highlighted the significance of book access, as well, revealing that 96% of teachers, principals, and school librarians believe that providing year-round access to books in the home is important to enhancing student achievement.

On the publishing front, Scholastic, which has offered a free summer reading program for kids since 2008, rolled out this year’s version in late April, with some tweaks that reflect the current climate. “Our 2021 program continues to keep reading motivation at the core, while addressing new challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic, including book access and providing kids with a safe digital community to interact with their peers,” says Lizette Serrano, v-p of educational marketing at Scholastic. From now until September 3, kids can participate in the program by creating accounts on Scholastic Home Base, which Serrano describes as “a safe, 24/7 moderated digital destination.”

Home Base allows kids to join a community of readers, as well as meet some of their favorite authors via virtual events, read e-books, and watch author readaloud videos. Participants can track their reading progress by keeping Reading Streaks, during which they mark milestones and can earn virtual rewards. The volume of reading tracked through participants’ Reading Streaks, Serrano says, will help to unlock “a donation of 100,000 print books from Scholastic, which will be distributed to kids in rural areas with limited or no access to books by Save the Children, a nonprofit organization that has transformed the lives of more than one billion children since its founding more than 100 years ago.”

Serrano believes that this summer presents an opportunity for “learning acceleration.” She adds, “We know that districts and families nationwide are working to ensure their summer learning plans include social-emotional support, online experiences, and holistic learning opportunities for all students.” The Scholastic Home Base online community provides options for social-emotional learning and connection.

As an example, Serrano points to the format of this summer’s programming. “Every Thursday from May 6 to August 26 at 3 p.m. ET, award-winning authors including summer reading ambassadors Sayantani DasGupta, Varian Johnson, Ann M. Martin, and Kelly Yang will host virtual events for kids to interact via a moderated chat function, ask questions, and learn behind-the-scenes information about the authors’ books,” she says. “And for budding writers, there will be opportunities to write a short piece with the authors.”

In addition to the summer reading program, Scholastic is offering a number of resources for students and families, including a Family Help Desk staffed by experts in trauma, anxiety, early childhood, and reading development from the Yale Child Study Center + Scholastic Collaborative. Among the other available tools are a resiliency workbook for kids, the opportunity to host/participate in summer reading virtual Book Fairs, and themed grab-and-go take-home student book packs for purchase.

Ed tech on board

Other companies are making available curated packs of books for home use this year, as well. “We created the take-home/summer reading book packs because distance learning has further highlighted the longstanding inequities that our students face,” says Deidra Purvis, director of classroom services at ed tech company Mackin. “Not all students have reliable access to the internet or to books at home. This has always been a challenge for schools, but even more so when students are spending less time in school and more time at home. The number of books in a student’s home has been found to correlate with their level of academic achievement. We also know, based on the science of reading engagement, that when provided with books that they find personally relevant, students are more likely to engage in reading, and thus become better readers. That is why we have designed an easy solution for schools to pick and choose inclusive book packs to be sent home to build ownership over reading for their students. It was most important to us that these books are of high interest and personally relevant to the lives of students.”

The grab-and-go model has become an essential element of Follett’s work with nonprofits and with school districts this summer. Last year, for the first time, it teamed up with two early literacy organizations—Page Ahead in Seattle and Start Reading Now in Minneapolis—to provide low-income families with books to read over the summer. The partnership idea was born when the pandemic forced the closure of schools, and thus the cancellation of the large in-school book fairs that the nonprofits had traditionally used to get summer reading materials to their participating students. Follett stepped in and offered an online ordering and shipping solution on a tight turnaround, using its book eFair template. All parties chose to continue the arrangement in 2021.

“We’ve made some improvements this year, to make it easier for students to be able to order the books that they want and have them bagged and packed and shipped,” says Britten Follett, executive v-p of Follett School Solutions. “Last year books went to a central location and the organization worked on the distribution. We’re doing the same this year, but we also have the ability to ship to homes as well.”

The summer reading pillars of access and choice are in play here, too. “Both organizations have a goal that allows for student choice,” Follett says. “There are a lot of organizations out there trying to get books in the hands of kids, but if it’s not a book the kid is interested in reading, they’re probably just going to put it on the shelf and not remember it. If the student has the opportunity to pick from popular titles, the idea is that they’re going to be far more engaged and potentially remember the book and develop their literacy skills further. That’s why they like the eFair platform, because it essentially allows kids to go shopping virtually.”

Follett’s relationship with Page Ahead has expanded this summer. The number of eFair events has increased from 32 to 45, and in a new twist, Follett will additionally be working with the school districts that participate in Page Ahead’s Book Up Summer program, which focuses on grades K–2. “The school districts that Page Ahead serves were so pleased with the events that they decided to use their own funds to also provide books to students in grades 3–5,” Britten Follett says. “It’s an interesting public-private partnership where the nonprofit [organization] funds K–2, the school district funds 3–5, and Follett is able to provide the platform for the distribution of the books.”

Beyond Washington State, Follett notes that, “from a school district perspective, we are seeing a huge demand in books-to-home [shipping]. School districts across the country are funding what we’re calling a grab-and go model—basically books in a bag for a student to keep at home to build their home library—because they’re concerned about the Covid slide combined with having an additional two-and-a-half months off over the summer.”

There is learning loss, but there’s not a loss of support. —Morgan McCullough, OverDrive

Districts are also looking at potential programming for high needs students over the summer, according to Follett. “It’s not a requirement from the federal government, but some states are strongly encouraging school districts to offer summer programming for high needs students due to the Covid slide,” she says. “I think it has just elevated the discussion, associated with the fact that many families don’t have books at home for students to read. So, if we know that that’s a gap, how can we use the large amount of federal funding that’s descending on K–12 schools to help fill it? That’s how some districts are thinking about it: What if we could help every student build their home library so that, when they’re not in the school building, they can have print books that are at their age and grade level and access them throughout the year?”

Follett says her company sees expanding on this nonprofit concept as a positive new business strategy. “If we can tap into third parties that are looking to get books into the hands of students, that’s additional revenue into the funnel,” she notes. “The idea of giving publishers a virtual fair option to test new authors, new genres, new concepts, new characters—those are things we’re interested in talking to our publishing partners about because, again, by selling directly to students and allowing them to select books without the financial limitations of a book fair, I think it’s an interesting potential test market.” As Follett explains, “In a book fair you can only buy what you can afford; in this case we set it up so the nonprofit is actually funding the selection of the books, which gives students an opportunity to choose more books than they might have previously shopped for.”

At OverDrive, educational general manager Angela Arnold reports that summer reading is among the top-of-mind concerns for the school districts and partners that use the company’s Sora reading app. In this unprecedented era when “every month, every quarter, every unit of time creates a different challenge for our school partners,” she says. “The way we can help is by really listening to their needs. Right now, they’re saying that they need to be able to deliver summer reading. They are looking for low-cost summer reading options like our Sweet Reads program, which is very popular and will help them provide some books right away.” She notes that OverDrive has “really turned on the gas on that program this year,” pointing out that it includes more titles (38) and more types of content (audiobooks, graphic novels).

Sweet Reads addresses such overarching questions as, “What kinds of materials are going to entice kids?” and, “What do they need right now and what do they want?” Arnold says. “Whereas in the past it was strictly a pleasure reading program to keep kids engaged over the summer, now it’s a little more prescriptive.”

Arnold pointed to the impressive success of last year’s program and noted that 2021 is already off to a strong start. In 2020, nearly 25,000 schools around the world took part in Sweet Reads, a 90% increase from the number of schools that participated in 2019. Student participation grew more than five times from 2019, resulting in a 500% increase in checkouts year over year. In total, more than 250,000 students joined in, reading at least one of the program’s 31 simultaneous-use titles. So far more than 48,000 schools are enrolled in the current Sweet Reads program, which runs May 5–August 20.

Apart from the Sweet Reads program, OverDrive’s school partners “are looking for additional free content and that’s something else that we’re bolstering in our Sora offering,” Arnold says. “Our publishers have very generously agreed to go back and make sure that they participate in the free content models we offer. School partners are also looking for us to help them provide structured programming or support the school’s structured programming.”

Arnold points to the example of ongoing discussions with one school district that does a community outreach program working with parents and families for whom English is a second language. “They’re providing reading materials, webinars, and weekly touch bases for those families,” she says. “And they’re talking to us because they are interested in how we can support that with digital books.”

Ann Arbor Public Schools in Michigan is one of the district partners taking advantage of OverDrive’s offerings to support its summer school programs. Jennifer Colby, library services department chair for AAPS, shared information on what her students will be able to access in the coming months. AAPS is offering summer school for students in kindergarten through 12th grade via online platform Schoology, which integrates access to Sora. To help make that connection, she says that all students will retain or be provided with district-issued devices (iPads for lower elementary and Chromebooks for upper elementary through high school). In all the programs, school librarians will showcase how to access and use the Sora e-book library and simultaneous use collections like Sora Sweet Reads and AudioSync Audiobook programs as well as a social and emotional learning lineup of titles.

“Access to these free, simultaneous use collections affords our teachers and students the opportunity to discuss choice book literature circles,” Colby says. “These discussions help students to share their understanding of a text and make connections with the text to their own lives and the lives of their fellow students. A major focus of our summer school curricula is community. These connections to the people within and outside of our communities are especially important as we have lived a socially distanced life over the past year and our students have not been able to personally interact with each other to the extent that they normally do.”

AAPS summer school students will have access to the district’s Sora curated e-book library collection, too. “Providing choice books to our students allows them to read and enjoy books of interest to them,” Colby says. “Without the opportunity to check out print books from our library collections since March 2020, access to books for pleasure reading has been limited. Our Sora e-book library, available to our students since November 2020, is growing in popularity every day. With continued promotion and use throughout the summer we hope to start the 2021–2022 school year with a robust and engaging e-book library.”

Colby adds that continued use and instruction in the Sora e-book library this summer will help students “develop their digital decoding and comprehension skills,” which will serve them well in the future. “As our AAPS curriculum and instruction will continue to incorporate digital resources, access to digital texts and knowing how to use the Sora interactive features strengthens student comprehension of texts and prepares our students for engagement with digital texts provided in other platforms as they move through our program and into college,” she says.

Programs and materials abound

In another partnership geared toward keeping students engaged and reading during the summer break, large-print publisher Thorndike Press has teamed up with the Beanstack reading tracking app and entrepreneur Mark Cuban to deliver Level Up, a national K–12 summer reading challenge for schools. Between June 1 and July 15, participating students will log the books they read on the Beanstack app, where they can earn virtual achievement badges and engage with friends in addition to discovering new books. Level Up participants can choose any genre or format of book to read, and large print books—a proven literacy intervention tool—will be one of the formats featured during the program.

Schools whose students log the most reading time will win cash prizes provided by Cuban, and prize packs of middle grade and YA large-print books. The grand-prize-winning school will receive $5,000 cash and a $1,000 collection of large print books, as well as a virtual chat with one of four authors: Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, Meg Medina, Kwame Mbalia, and Jewell Parker Rhodes. There will also be a second-place prize awarded, and four runners-up will earn cash and books, too.

Digital reading platform Epic plans to keep kids’ attention when school’s out with the launch of its first-ever summer program, Camp Epic. Under the Camp Epic umbrella, the app will release a 10-page comic each week for five consecutive weeks beginning July 5. The comics mark a crossover event and star characters from the Epic Originals line of titles joining together for fun and adventure with a summer camp backdrop. Each of the weekly comic installments will also include a hands-on activity for campers, including classics like making a friendship bracelet or tie-dye shirt.

While not every publisher runs a distinct summer reading program, many of the companies that created online resources for students, educators, and families to access during the pandemic continue to support those offerings, keeping them available during the summer break. Others may expand their marketing efforts behind books whose appeal may spike during the summer, from award-winning titles that often appear on schools’ summer reading lists, to workbooks and skills-boosting tools. At Penguin Young Readers, Mad Libs is offering such print supplemental educational materials as its Mad Libs Workbook series. New titles include Mad Libs Workbook: Grade 1 Reading and run through Mad Libs Workbook: Grade 4 Reading.

The library story

Public libraries have always been at the forefront of offering summer reading programs, book clubs, and other special resources and programming for students during the summer. Though many librarians have found creative ways to bring these opportunities to their local kids over the years, the nonprofit Collaborative Summer Library Program has been helping libraries across the country plan and implement themed summer reading programs since 1987, when, according to the organization’s timeline, 10 regional library systems in Minnesota teamed up to develop a reproducible summer reading program for kids that had a theme and dedicated artwork, as well as incentives for libraries to purchase and use. These days the group collaborates with libraries to create an annual “inclusive literacy based program that is enjoyable for all ages,” according to its mission statement. The reproducible programs and materials are available to babies through adults. This year’s theme is Tails & Tales and features artwork by Salina Yoon.

Luke Kralik, organizational coordinator for CSLP, says that the group has weathered the pandemic stresses and disruptions fairly well and looks forward to regaining some footing as summer reading programs kick off this time around. “Last summer was quite a wild ride for us,” he recalls. “March and April are huge shipping months for CSLP, and sudden library closures caused hundreds and hundreds of orders to become undeliverable. There were days when over 60 boxes were showing back up at the warehouse.”

As a result, Kralik says, CSLP had to temporarily halt shipping. “But at the time, there was still tremendous optimism that things would be back to normal in the summer.” He adds that fellow coordinator Melissa Hooke “was contacted by, or personally reached out to, thousands of libraries, and had their delivery addresses changed from their closed libraries, to their own personal addresses.”

CSLP scrambled to pivot in other ways, as well. “We also put together a small committee of volunteers to find and repackage worksheets, handouts, and reproducibles from previous CSLP manuals,” Kralik says. “This was to help folks with their new curbside grab-and-go programming.” As 2021 summer programs launch, “things have not quite returned to normal, but have been much more manageable,” he adds. “We have had a lot of libraries put off ordering until the last minute, and it does seem like we are seeing a lot of people new to their position placing orders. This, compounded by some manufacturing and sourcing issues, has caused us to run out of products a bit prematurely, but nothing too bad.”

Processing learning loss

Many educators and schools have been working hard to create summer learning support for their students, but Morgan McCullough, OverDrive librarian, believes they may not be thinking too much about learning loss—yet. She works directly with schools, brainstorming with them about their needs and how OverDrive can provide the best solutions for them.

Most often these days, McCullough says, schools want “supportive materials, things they can access when they’re not in school, on weekends, and, of course, in our current circumstances, in blending learning environments.” In terms of how schools are addressing learning loss concerns, “I’d say they’re not quite there yet,” she adds. “The past year it’s been like putting out fire after fire. We all know learning loss is on the horizon, but we’re still triaging moment by moment what their needs are. SEL [social and emotional learning] is coming to the fore, because educators know there are going to be traumatized kids. The expectation is a sharp increase. You can’t really do anything practical until you manage your kids’ emotions to the point where they can regulate themselves and take in what you’re giving them.”

To that end, McCullough says that OverDrive is offering a free SEL collection for partners “that our publishers helped us create. We have professional development that is key for SEL, because teachers have to be able to regulate themselves. They’ve had tough years, as well. They need to figure that out before they can help their students.”

Arnold agrees, offering that she has seen a shift in the types of professional development that schools are seeking. “One of the key differentiators between this year and last year is that the professional development gap that schools were looking to address last summer revolved around how to teach in a remote or hybrid model—how do you ‘do digital’?” she says. “Now the need seems to be more about, how do you care for the kids who are not necessarily in a good place?”

Referring to the aforementioned Family Help Desk and other SEL resources Scholastic is offering this summer, Serrano says, “As a parent myself, I see firsthand how critically important these elements are, and the research confirms it—according to the Scholastic Teacher & Principal School Report, 99% of educators agree that for students to reach their highest academic potential, their social-emotional needs must be met, and nearly all educators, 98%, agree that literacy is critical to students’ health and emotional wellness.”

Beyond the summer

Arnold believes that school administrators continue to face tremendous challenges this summer and further down the line. “They have to now think about how to preserve learning and address unfinished learning as they wind down this school year,” she says. “They need to think about how to enter the fall and what will happen. If that weren’t enough, they are also going to be presented with opportunities to participate in education stabilization funding—and it’s a lot of money. They’re going to be asked to start preparing proposals, to start thinking about which are the most worthy projects for this funding, and how this money could best be applied in their districts for what their kids need. In any other time that would be its own full-time job.”

Ultimately, Arnold says, “I think there’s hope; it’s going to be okay. We really have to home in on that message and convey that to parents and everybody, that we will get through this together.” She believes that message has never been more important in the context of K–12 education.

“Of course, the downside,” Arnold says, “is that, due to many inequities in the educational system, not everyone had the same kind of experiences during the pandemic, and some kids were impacted way more than others. But it’s important to reinforce and recognize that it’s okay and that students are probably commensurate with their peers. One thing I’ve learned from our school partners is to eschew the terms ‘learning loss’ and ‘summer slide’ and I’m starting to adopt the term ‘unfinished learning.’ It’s a subtle distinction, but I think it’s one of many ways we can help reduce anxiety, especially among kids and parents. It’s not done yet; we’ll get there. Your teacher will know where you left off and where you are.”

McCullough concurs. “We all know our students might have some gaps and might need extra help or commitment to make sure they’re meeting some of those benchmarks,” she says. “We all understand, and we’re all there walking in lockstep together. There is learning loss, but there’s not a loss of support.”