For some schools, the pandemic has created an opportunity to try new things, and the four-day school week has become one of those considerations. One benefit administrators expect from a shorter school week is to retain and attract experienced teachers.
According to Oregon State University professor Paul Thompson, the four-day school week is attractive to districts as a benefit for teachers because pay raises often face resistance. “Now schools are saying, what can we do to make teachers’ jobs a little easier and give them more flexibility?” Administrators are hopeful that a shorter school week could ease some of the burden on teachers and improve mental health.
Four weeks of school days in practice
Before the pandemic, 24 states had at least one school with a four-day week. “Most of them are found in the western half of the United States, so places like Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Colorado and Oklahoma,” according to Thompson.
Each state has a required number of days for children to be in school each year, so it is easier for states with lower requirements to have a four-day school week. Studies of students’ academic performance in four-day week schools show mixed results. For example, students attending a four-day week school in Colorado had higher scores in math and English language arts, while students in Oregon declined.
“A lot of school districts that went to a four-day week never came back,” Thompson said.
According to Thompson, the deciding factor in whether a four-day school week would negatively affect students’ academic performance is instructional time. Schools are required to fill student holidays by increasing the amount of time on days that students are in school On average, four-day-week school days are about an hour longer than five-day week schools.
“In school districts that don’t extend school to the other four days, students are really suffering because they’re losing a lot of ‘time-in-seat,'” Thompson said. “We’re seeing a lot of negative achievement effects in places that didn’t decide to extend the school day over the remaining four days.” On average, four-day week schools do not have the same amount of instructional time as five-day week schools, even if they have longer school days. One study found that a four-day week school had about 60 fewer hours of instruction over the course of a year.
Elementary students also tend to do worse in four-day week schools. Having a day off works better for high school students because they usually skip class for sports or other extracurriculars anyway.
According to Thompson, “Ninety-five percent of schools that switch to a four-day school week operate across the district.” So students can have off-day games and extracurriculars and actually stay in more classes than they would on a traditional school schedule. Families can also use days when students are not in school to visit the doctor, which is common in rural districts where parents may have to travel long distances for appointments.
Before the pandemic, schools shortened the week to cut costs. They save money because they don’t have to pay cafeteria workers, parents and other hourly workers. Schools do not have to pay to run buses on days when students are not in school. However, unless transportation is a large part of a school’s budget, they typically don’t save that much money when converting to a four-day week.
“For most schools, instructional staff is the largest component of their budget. And these are all salaried workers,” Thompson said. “Teachers are not taking a pay cut when schools switch to a four- versus five-day model.” The savings typically range from zero to three percent of the school’s budget.
What do schools do on the fifth day?
Flexibility attracts schools to the four-day week model. Schools can do different things during the holidays. “It’s not a one size fits all approach,” Thompson said. For example, when high school teacher Kirsten Bramstedt had a four-day week during distance learning, there were no classes, but teachers still had internal meetings.
Other schools have more outside-the-box approaches, such as experiential learning opportunities, on-the-job training or internships. “That’s something you can’t get out of a traditional five-day week model,” Thompson said.
Other schools may use holidays for asynchronous learning. Thompson said four-day week schools that offer holiday learning opportunities are rare because they require funding and extra planning.
With a four-day school week, there are also allowances for teachers. One day a week without instruction means more time and bandwidth for teacher training and professional development, which can lead to stronger instruction. During a traditional five-day week model, many teachers who want to participate in professional development must do so on weekends or after school hours.
Thompson cautions against switching to the 4-day model without checking in with the family. When school schedules change, parents and caregivers have to take on more responsibilities, such as childcare.
“There aren’t very good childcare options for school-age children, especially during the school year. And it’s going to be hard to find that one day a week,” Thompson said. Places that have a four-day school week typically have more intergenerational families to take care of children during the day off. “In other places like Colorado, Oklahoma or Oregon, that’s not really the case. For example, where the parents are working and the children are home alone.”
Families and students in districts with a four-day school week—primarily in rural communities in the American West—report highly valuing the extra time the four-day schedule allows families to spend together. pic.twitter.com/lfSdZbIaFj
— RAND Corporation (@RANDCorporation) October 7, 2021
Additionally, school is where most children get their physical activity be it through recess or PE classes. Getting rid of a school day means kids are more likely to be less active throughout the day.
Some families depend on the school to provide at least one meal a day. Thompson urged schools to consider whether a four-day school week would make families more food insecure or affect student nutrition. Some schools may outsource to an outside agency to ensure that children have meals on days when they are not in school, although most do not.
Schools considering a four-day week are faced with choosing fewer instructional hours and shifting responsibilities to families with a four-day school week or losing teachers with a five-day week schedule.
“If we lose these high-quality teachers, we’re probably going to replace them with a lot of low-quality teachers, which [might surpass] The negative impact of lost instructional time,” says Thompson.
Research on the four-day school week during the pandemic is still emerging, and with it comes more innovative ways to think about how to do schooling so that it works for teachers, students, and families.