K-12 school districts across the country are currently faced with a good problem: an unprecedented infusion of federal funding that needs to be spent quickly provided via the pandemic relief package. Districts must use at least 20 percent of this funding to address student “learning loss” through out-of-school time programming, like summer learning.

As districts sprint to design their summer programs, they would be wise to target investments beyond the group of older elementary and middle school students for whom we have data on learning loss and include young children transitioning into and currently enrolled in kindergarten. Last year, districts across the country reported significant drops in pre-K and kindergarten enrollment, particularly among children of color and children from families with lower incomes. As the country emerges from the pandemic, ensuring that the youngest students also have the opportunity to access high-quality summer programs is critical for supporting equitable learning and development in the longer term.

Our research conducted before the pandemic found that pre-K and kindergarten students continue to make gains in language and math skills during the summer even when they are not enrolled in a formal school-based program. However, implementing high-quality programs that are fun, engaging, and relevant to children’s interests and experiences in the summer before kindergarten can further improve their academic, social, and emotional skills, and help them navigate the transition to elementary school. This may be particularly true for children who do not have the opportunity to attend a formal pre-K program.

Other states and districts should also consider prioritizing summer programming for young students who missed the opportunity to receive in-person learning this year. Academic skills in kindergarten are highly predictive of outcomes through third grade and beyond. Boosting young children’s skills through investments in summer learning this year may be more important than ever before because of the significant disruptions in early care and education most children have experienced.

Importantly, access to high-quality summer learning programs for rising and graduating kindergarteners was inequitable before the pandemic and, in the absence of intervention, stands to be even more so this summer. Our research has found that Black and Hispanic students and students from households with low incomes are less likely than their white and higher-income peers to enroll in any formal summer learning program between pre-K and kindergarten. In addition, students who are white and from higher-income families make faster gains in academic skills during the summer compared to their peers.

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