Summer school is usually seen as a stumbling block – an obligation for those who need to catch up on a few lessons at a time when they certainly no longer want to go to school.

But since the school has not been normal for most students for more than 15 months, the summer school should not be the same either.

School districts across Maine are retrofitting millions of dollars in summer programs to better cope with this final phase of the pandemic. The best ideas are fusing academics with enriching programs to attract students who have had far too little to do with each other in the past year.

Schools need to focus more than ever on the social and emotional wellbeing of their students. The stresses of the pandemic hit each student differently and hit many very hard.

During the distance learning that was required to keep the virus at bay, schools found that attendance and test scores were declining and class dropouts were increasing. Teachers who have done heroic work since last March still struggled to attract students. We can assume that students are lagging far behind what they should be, especially those from low-income families who tend to be hardest hit by disruptions in school.

Catching up with students academically takes a tremendous effort – and so does their social selves. Students have lost relationships on several levels over the past year. Attachments have to be repaired and interpersonal skills have to be relearned. They also need to replenish the parts of their souls that were harmed during the pandemic.

Summer programs can help. With the number of COVID cases falling and schools able to prevent the virus from spreading, they can be safe. With creativity, they can be very fulfilling.

At Waterville, the Morning Sentinel reports, in addition to the usual academic tuition this year, the program will include a wide range of enriching programs that focus on building new hobbies and interests.

For three weeks in July, students can choose from offers such as classic car restoration, cooking, photography, rock band, robot construction, local history and tabletop gaming. All courses are free, including food and transport.

Other circles also use the federal funds for the same purpose. Portland Schools will expand their summer program for the next two years, the Press Herald reported in April. Gorham Schools, which do not normally have a summer program, extend their services during the hot months, with an emphasis on students receiving special education.

Schools were rightly cautious last year. But there is no doubt that distance learning has left many children behind, socially, emotionally, and academically.

One way to catch up with them is to offer them new, enriching experiences that will help them re-integrate with their friends and colleagues, learn new skills, and perhaps find new talent.

The students looked down on the summer school for a long time. What kind of a thing would it be if the students of the COVID era looked back on it with affection.

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