The school year provides a sense of stability for families and a structure that allows both children and parents to form consistent routines. However, for underprivileged families, the stability gained from school is more extensive. In addition to the obvious educational benefits, to unprivileged families school provides child care, meals, mental and physical activity, and often before and after school programs.
So, what happens to these families when summer begins? For low-income families, summer vacation can be a financial burden. Child care is expensive. In fact, according to American Express, parents reported spending an average of $958 per child for summer activities in 2014, and costs only continue to rise. On average, day camp costs $304 per week, with many for-profit camps costing $500 or more a week. Many low-income families simply cannot afford the child care required during summer break. They instead must rely on a patchwork of family, friends, or neighbors, and in many cases, left with no other choices, leave their children home alone.
Health and educational challenges increase in summer
In addition to the financial hardship, summer vacation presents other health and educational challenges for low-income families. During summer, children from low-income families can gain weight two to three times as fast compared to the school year, in part due to the absence of nutritional meals and required physical activity that the school year provides.
Additionally, without school or the option to attend a day camp, children also experience a learning loss, which researchers have claimed is one of the leading causes of the achievement gap between high-income and low-income children. When the school year begins, students on average are behind on math from when they left school the previous spring. But for low-income students, they also return on average two months behind on reading skills, and they are often unable to catch up. This cumulative loss each summer accounts for some low-income students being nearly a grade year behind by high school graduation.
While nearly every student looks forward to summer, the break from school can pose a risk to a child’s health, education and general wellbeing. Health systems, governments, and nonprofit organizations need to work together to ensure those children are not negatively impacted by the summer break. Grants, free day programs, and subsidized camps are available in cities across the country, but awareness for such programs may be lacking. By connecting children with community services available, we can help them thrive in school, remain healthy and reduce the potential of being impacted by social determinants later in life. Parents and children should not face the financial, educational, and health burdens when the school year ends.