Lancaster organizations combatting learning loss with summer programs


LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — The Lancaster Partnership for Learning Equity formed in the spring of 2020 to help combat summer learning loss compounded by coronavirus-initiated virtual schooling. After a year of distance and hybrid learning for many students, the partnership will offer educational programs again this summer.

A few months before the end of the 2019-2020 academic year, schools around the state shut down to protect students and staff from COVID-19. The shift to remote education was challenging, and educators worried that the interrupted and unusual school year might negatively impact students’ learning.

The Lancaster STEM Alliance and The Steinman Foundation, which supports the alliance, began looking for ways to help prevent learning loss that students might have experienced due to the atypical end to the school year. They were concerned that this COVID-19 learning loss could be coupled with the summer slide that research suggests many students already experience.

The Steinman Foundation teamed up with the United Way of Lancaster County to create the Lancaster Partnership for Learning Equity. In just a handful of weeks, the organizations planned a summer program, connected families to broadband internet services, and provided students with technological devices and other supplies they needed to participate.

The 2020 summer program served about 600 kids through both in-person and virtual programming, says Oliva Walters, foundation outreach coordinator for The Steinman Foundation. Kevin Ressler, president and CEO of the United Way of Lancaster County, says the mentality they took while quickly creating the program was “let’s just get it done, break it while you’re building it, don’t worry about perfect being the enemy of the good.”

Even though they only had a short time for planning, Walters says, “We ran a really fun program. The kids loved it. The teachers really enjoyed it, they felt like it gave them some of their passion for teaching back.”

After the success of the first summer program, the Lancaster Partnership for Learning Equity created an after-school program held during the academic year. The partnership will be offering another program again this summer.

The 2021 summer program includes both in-person and virtual options. Instructors will tentatively be present for in-person summer camps at about four locations reaching about 200 students, explains Walters. The in-person programs will involve minimal use of technology.

A fully virtual program will also be available for all families in Lancaster County. This involves daily live one-hour lessons as well as time for one-on-one meetings with students and their families to provide individualized education as needed.

Walters and Ressler say the virtual option is important for making the program accessible for all Lancaster County residents. “We know there’s a lot of families who don’t have transportation, don’t have access, can’t get their kid to a site,” Walters said.

There is no cost to attend the program, and the organization is still able to help qualifying families connect to the internet or acquire computers, notes Walters.

While adults may be tired of remote work, Ressler says the Lancaster Partnership for Learning Equity tries to lean into the advantages of digital options. Virtual programs can be more accessible, and they also prepare students for a future in which remote work will likely be more common than it was before the pandemic, he says.

In addition to helping mitigate summer learning loss and providing accessible programs, another advantage of the partnership’s programming is that it spans the entire county, so students from different districts and different backgrounds are able to meet one another and learn together, says Walters.

“When we talk about equity, the Partnership for Learning Equity, we’re talking about providing accessible educational components to kids who don’t normally have those [at the] same levels as others,” Ressler says, “but we’re also making sure that it’s integrated with other kids who have more resources traditionally.”

The partnership also looks to hire diverse teachers, so all students can see themselves reflected in their instructors.

“I went to a suburban school kindergarten through 12th grade. I didn’t have a single non-white teacher in my entire 13 years. There was no teacher who looked like me,” says Ressler. “When you think about kids looking for, ‘What can I be when I grow up?’…Having a diverse set of teachers exposes our kids to the reality of seeing themselves or seeing someone different than them in a position of authority.”

Although the Lancaster Partnership for Learning Equity formed in response to COVID-19, Ressler says they would still want to offer the program even if the pandemic wasn’t ongoing. “Beyond what we’re trying to ‘save’ with regards to what is not normal right now, we also would do this if everything was normal because it’s addictive,” he said.

The partnership is currently seeking teachers for its virtual summer programs. All classes are taught by certified teachers. They follow curriculum developed by BellXcel which fosters social-emotional learning, whole-child focus, math and literacy, says Walters.

Interested teachers can find more application detail here.

Student applications for the free remote summer learning program will open within the next two weeks. Any student living in Lancaster County is eligible to apply for the program, and students will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. Individuals can sign up at this link to receive an email blast when the application goes live.

Any further questions can be directed to Olivia Walters at or 717-291-8658.

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