Hundreds of US schools facing teacher shortages are turning to four-day school weeks to attract and keep staff.
That’s causing concern among parents over child-care demands and lower test scores.
More than 1,600 schools across 24 states had a four-day school week, and the trend is growing. At least 800 districts are using four-day school weeks this year, Paul Thompson, a professor at Oregon State University who studies the topic, told The Wall Street Journal.
They are especially popular among smaller districts and west of the Mississippi River, due to varying state instructional time policies and the generally higher-than-average per-pupil costs for smaller districts, Andrea Phillips, a policy researcher at Rand Corp who has studied the subject, told DiveWire, a press release distribution service.
Rural communities in some Midwestern and Southern states are currently turning to four-day school weeks. Dozens of districts in Texas, Missouri, Colorado and Oklahoma have adopted four-day weeks in recent years to save money and shorten commute times for students.
Thompsons said about half of US states allow four-day weeks under statutes that typically require minimum instructional hours or school days. Most districts that move to a shorter school week increase the amount of instructional time each day, he said.
COVID-19 has hurt school staffing, forcing some schools to turn to recruiting state employees, retirees and National Guard members to fill in as substitute teachers.
Superintendent Chris Heslinga of Maysville, Missouri, told the Journal that he made the decision to switch to a four-day week in his district this year because it has become increasingly difficult to staff schools in in small, rural districts such as his.
Maysville is taking Mondays off and adding a half-hour of instructional time to Tuesdays through Fridays to meet the state requirements for hours, Heslinga said.
In the district’s elementary schools, the extra time is used for longer lessons in subjects such as reading and math.
Students in middle school and high school use the time to catch up in classes in which they have fallen behind, or as a study-hall period, he said.
Heslinga said the move has helped the district staff schools but the district hasn’t yet decided whether it will make the four-day week permanent.
There is no significant evidence available to show a four-day school week is making it easier to attract and retain staff, but Thompson said the trend is gaining steam nationwide as districts seek an edge in the competition for teachers.
A 2021 report conducted by the Santa Monica, California-based research organization Rand Corp found that parents, teachers and students in districts with four-day weeks responded favorably to the shortened schedules.
Teachers and families said the arrangements provided more time for recovery from busy schedules and that students learned at least as much in a four-day week.
“It emerged as a real competitive advantage, particularly for rural schools who were having difficulties in attracting talented teachers — or teachers at all,” Andrea Phillips, a policy researcher at Rand who has studied the subject, told DiveWire, a press release distribution service.
But the Rand study found that districts that adopted four-day weeks in its prepandemic study experienced slower gains in math and reading scores on state exams, compared with similar districts with five-day schedules.
Christopher Doss, one of the authors of the study, told the Journal that the differences, although slight, could have significant impact over time. “Essentially, the four-day school week hurt student achievement,” he said.
Some parents in districts that have switched to four-day weeks, or are considering doing so, have expressed concerns over increased demands for childcare caused by the extra school-free day.
Most districts that made the switch in recent years only achieved savings of 1 percent or 2 percent of their total budgets, according to Thompson, but that didn’t deter more schools from adopting a four-day schedule.
A Wall Street Journal review found that about 600 districts in at least 22 states were using a four-day schedule by 2018, up from about 120 districts in 17 states a decade earlier.