For some schools, the pandemic created an opportunity to try new things and making four-day school weeks the norm is one of those considerations. One benefit administrators hope to achieve from a shortened school week is retaining and attracting experienced teachers.
Four-day school weeks are attractive to districts as a perk for teachers because salary increases are often met with resistance, according to Paul Thompson, a professor at Oregon State University who studies the four-day school week. “Now schools are saying, what can we do for teachers to make their jobs a little bit easier and give them more flexibility?” Administrators are hopeful that a shorter school week might alleviate some of the burden on teachers and improve mental health.
The four-week school day in practice
Prior to the pandemic, 24 states had at least one school with a four-day week. “Most of these are found in the western half of the U.S. so places like Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Colorado and Oklahoma,” according to Thompson.
Each state has a required number of days children need to be at school per year, so it’s easier for states with lower requirements to have four-day school weeks. Studies about students’ academic performance in four-day week schools show varied results. For example, students attending four-day week schools in Colorado had higher scores in math and English language arts, whereas students in Oregon experienced declines.
“Many school districts that switch to a four-day week have never switched back,” said Thompson.
The deciding factor for whether a four-day school week will negatively affect students’ academic performance is instructional hours, according to Thompson. Schools have to make up for the day students have off by increasing the amount of time during the days students are in school. On average, the four-day-week school days are about an hour longer than five-day week schools.
“In school districts that don't increase time in school on those other four days, students are really suffering because they're losing a lot of ‘time-in-seat’ as a result,” said Thompson. “We see a lot of negative achievement effects in places that didn't decide to expand the school day much on those remaining four days.” On average, four-day week schools don’t have as many instructional hours as five-day week schools, even if they have longer school days. One study showed that a four-day week school had almost 60 fewer hours of instruction over the course of a year.
Elementary students also tend to fare worse in four-day week schools. Having a day off works out better for high schoolers because they are usually leaving class for sports or other extracurriculars anyway.
“Ninety-five percent of school districts that switched to a four-day school week do this district wide,” according to Thompson. So students can have games and extracurriculars on the off-day and actually end up being in class more than they would on a traditional school schedule. Families can also use the day students are not in school for doctor visits, which is common in rural districts where parents might need to travel a long distance for appointments.
Before the pandemic, schools shortened the week to cut costs. They save money because they don’t have to pay cafeteria workers, custodians, and other hourly workers. Schools also don’t have to pay for buses to run on the day that students are not in school. However, unless transportation is a big part of a school’s budget, they usually don’t save that much money when they transition to a four-day week.
“For most schools, instructional staff is the largest component of their budget. And these are all salaried workers,” said Thompson. “Teachers are not receiving pay cuts when schools switch to a four versus five-day model.” Savings are typically between zero and three percent of the school’s budget.
What schools do with the fifth day
Flexibility also attracts schools to the four-day week model. Schools can do different things with the day off. “It's not like a one size fits all type of approach,” said Thompson. 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 an internship. “That’s something you wouldn't get out of a traditional five-day week model,” said Thompson.
Other schools may use the off day for asynchronous learning. Thompson said that four-day week schools that offer learning opportunities on the day off are rare because they require funding and extra planning.
With the four-day school week, there are perks in store for teachers too. Having a day without instruction during the week means there is 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 have to do it over the weekend or after school hours.
Thompson cautions against switching to a 4-day model without checking in with families. When school schedules change, parents and caregivers have to take on more responsibilities, like childcare.
“There's not a lot of good childcare options for school age children, especially during the school year. And finding it one day a week would be difficult,” said Thompson. Places that have four-day week schools usually have a high concentration of intergenerational families to take care of kids during their day off. “That's not really the main case in other places like Colorado, Oklahoma or in Oregon, for example, where parents are working and kids are home alone.”
Additionally, school is where most kids get their physical activity whether it’s through recess or a PE class. Getting rid of a school day means kids are more likely to be less active throughout the day.
Some families rely on schools to provide at least one meal a day. Thompson urges schools to consider whether a four-day school week would make families more food insecure or affect students’ nutrition. Some schools may outsource to an outside organization to ensure that kids have food on the day they are not in school, though most do not.
Schools considering the four-day week are faced with choosing between less instructional time and shifting responsibilities to families with a four-day school week or losing teachers to burnout with the five-day week schedule.
“If we lose these high quality teachers, we're going to replace them with probably much lower quality teachers, which [might surpass] the negative effects of lost instructional time,” said Thompson.
Research on the four-day school week during the pandemic is still emerging and with it are more innovative ways to think about how to do schooling so that it works for teachers, students and families.
“There's this great resignation going on and if schools don't do something quick, people like me – I'm a very good teacher with a lot of experience – are going to quit or retire early,” said Bramstedt.