Durango Herald: 4-day school weeks poised to be Southwest standard

Historians are at odds over why school calendars begin in the fall and summer is the season for breaks. Some say children helped on farms in summer. Others says cities were sweltering in June, July and August before air-conditioning. By the late 19th century, though, reformers pushed to standardize school calendars across urban and rural areas.

The reason was not related to student achievement.

Now, the four-day school week is poised to become the Southwest standard. We repeat history with the switch having nothing to do with improved student achievement. Its main purpose is to attract and retain teachers.

Durango School District 9-R is the holdout for five days as Montezuma-Cortez, Dolores, Mancos, Ignacio and Bayfield school districts moved to four days.

Colorado leads the nation in four-day school weeks. At last count, 124 Colorado school districts, mostly rural, of 178 – or 69% – moved to four days.

In 2009 to 2010, the Colorado Legislature cut school district budgets – some 15% – because of fiscal challenges. Parents were told heads could roll. Fewer teachers meant larger classes. Conversations about shortened weeks then became real. No need for bus drivers and cafeteria workers on that off-day. A savings there.

But this is no longer the case. Priorities have changed and a four-day week can be expensive. Tom Burris, Montezuma-Cortez School District interim superintendent, said bus drivers and food service workers would have taken a 20% pay hit with a shortened week, so “significant raises” made up for this.

Again, keeping and attracting school staff members is driving the change. Yet, research about the effects on students is lacking. The days are long, especially for the little ones. Are they getting academically ripped off? Possibly. But we can only speculate because we don’t have solid data or science. The shortened week remains an untested strategy.

Instead of asking whether a four-day week improves student achievement, the focus is on students’ behavioral health. Are four-day school weeks harmful?

In August 2020, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment published findings on shortened school weeks and adolescent health behaviors in the Journal of School Health. The study found mixed health outcomes. The positives – improved student engagement, decreased substance use and non-school screen time, and increased physical activity. The negatives – increased bullying and sexual activity, decreased sleep and breakfast consumption.

Remember back when we talked about the possibilities of year-round school and the “summer slide,” when students lose ground academically? Yeah, we’re not having these conversations these days. Good luck finding teachers who want that gig. Teachers on four-day schedules told us they’re not returning to five days. And CDPHE satisfaction surveys indicate 80% to 90% of community members favor continuing the four-day week in districts on the schedule for several years.

Burris said the four-day week is a benefit to his staff members and students.

But it’s a community decision. School District 9-R Superintendent Karen Cheser said five full days of instruction allow for the best, most comprehensive learning. Taking away one day could have a negative impact.

Karla Sluis, public information officer for 9-R, said child care on the off-day is an issue for teachers with young children. Four-day school weeks are a financial and logistical burden on households with single parents or two working parents with five-day workweeks. Sluis can personally attest to this point. “A full day of quality child care in addition to four days of after-school camp would have meant, ‘Hey kids, beans and rice for dinner … again!’” she said.

Watching research, 9-R will revisit this model if results are promising.

Each district is different. We respect each choice. And we get behind whatever schedule elevates teachers’ morale and lures excellent ones to our schools.

Durango Herald Editorial Board

Post courtesy of Colorado Politics.com

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