Home Health & Fitness Four-Day School Week: Parents and Experts Weigh In

Four-Day School Week: Parents and Experts Weigh In

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Four-Day School Week: Parents and Experts Weigh In

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After a busy weekend, Kayla Dickhoff and her husband head back to work each Monday morning. But her six kids stay at home, relaxing and finishing up homework, with the older ones looking after the younger ones. “We use Monday as a catch-up and a refresh, like a breather day after a weekend,” she says. They can do this because their district in Belgrade, MN, is on a four-day school week. Dickhoff loves it. “I hope we never, ever have to go back to five days,” she says.

Fortunately for her, it’s unlikely they ever will. In recent years, more and more schools in the US have adopted the four-day school week, and, historically, few ever revert back. This school year, nearly 900 districts across the country (about seven percent) have opted for the shorter week, according to the Associated Press. That’s up from a little more than 100 in 1999.

“Every state west of the Mississippi now allows the four-day school week as an option,” says Jon S. Turner, PhD, who has researched the effects of the four-day school week as an associate professor at Missouri State University.

Unsurprisingly, most students love this setup. But what do parents have to say? The approval ratings in parent surveys show that far more agree with Dickhoff than you might expect.

How the Four-Day School Week Became Popular

Four-day school weeks began for practical reasons. Dr. Turner says districts that were early adopters of the practice transitioned to four days to save a little money — mainly because one less school day per week equates to 20 percent less diesel fuel used by the school buses. (The environmental benefits of that are just a bonus, but very much embraced in liberal counties.) The vast majority of these schools are in rural areas, where the bus ride can take two hours or more.

Emily Morton, PhD, who’s been studying four-day school weeks since 2017, says the average district saves about $50,000 per year this way — not exactly a windfall, but not nothing either.

Soon, nearby school districts found they were losing teachers and staff members to four-day week schools, so they adopted the truncated schedule to stay competitive. Dr. Turner says that when Independence School District in suburban Kansas City changed to four days this year, it saw the number of teacher applications go up by four times, and for the first time in recent memory, there’s no longer a bus driver shortage. “In this tightening job market, the four-day week is just very attractive,” he says.

Fewer days doesn’t necessarily mean less school, though. The minimum instructional hours mandated varies by state, but most districts make up the lost time by lengthening the school day. Others add an extra week or so at the end of the year.

What Parents Think of the Four-Day School Week

One might assume families would resent a schedule that doesn’t line up with the work week, or be wary that a lighter schedule might mean kids aren’t learning enough. Yet Dr. Turner says his research team’s surveys have found that 70 to 80 percent of parents overall actually like the four-day week.

“Some of the benefits they talk about are increased family time. They think students are less stressed. They think their morale at the school is better,” says Dr. Morton. “There’s mixed hard evidence on that. But in analysis of discipline events we do see that bullying and fighting incidents decrease.”

Kathryn Mounce, in Lincoln, AR, says the extra day off helps her kids go back to school after the long weekend feeling more refreshed, making them more productive during the week. “A shorter school week helps alleviate stress and burnout,” she says.

Research conducted by the RAND Corporation in 2021 also shows a small tick up in school attendance rates at four-day schools, which could be due to the flexibility of having an extra day off. “I try to schedule as many appointments that my kids need as possible on Mondays when we have off,” Dickhoff says. “That way, I don’t have to pull them out of school.”

Not everyone loves the setup, however. Approval numbers for the four-day school week dip closer to 50 percent among parents of children with special needs and parents who only have younger kids — circumstances that make childcare trickier.

“I hope we never, ever have to go back to five days.”

And one important area that concerns some parents and experts alike is student achievement. While Dr. Morton’s research, published in the Oklahoma Education Journal, has found that rural districts see little to no effect of a short week on academic performance, there is a small negative effect in more populated areas. It’s not entirely clear what causes this difference, she says, though there’s speculation it could be tied to the amount of instructional time. The benefits of teacher retention and easier scheduling of school sports in rural areas may also balance out any adverse effects of having one less day in school.

There are also those who worry about children who don’t have a safe space at home or consistent access to food. While some schools do offer breakfast and lunch on the day off, it’s up to the families to get the students there.

So, What Do Families Do on Day Five?

Despite the cost savings and better school-life balance, one day less of school can obviously leave parents in the lurch. Amanda Kay, who lives in Bethel Park, PA, a suburb of Pittsburgh, says when she first heard talk of a four-day school week online, she couldn’t imagine how working parents could pull it off. Her 10-year old goes to school five days a week, which she’s very glad for.

“I’d have to figure out something for her to do,” Kay says. “I work from home, but she wouldn’t really have anybody to be there and be engaged with her.” Even though her daughter is old enough to look after herself, Kay says she wouldn’t want to leave her to her own devices all day.

Yet research shows that most kids with three-day weekends are not spending the extra day off playing video games and watching TV. Dr. Morton surveyed kids about how they spent their time, and says, “The category that students reported most of the time increasing on was actually chores.”

School itself also keeps many kids busy. Most districts use the day off for extracurricular activities like sports or theater practice, or targeted academic intervention for students falling behind. “On the fifth day, we may be having field trips where we’re going to college visitations or visiting museums,” Dr. Turner adds. Some schools give virtual assignments for students to complete from home. Those in more tourist-friendly areas often schedule Fridays off so that high schoolers can work in industries that get busier Fridays through Sundays.

Dr. Morton says childcare is actually far less of an issue than most people would assume. “It’s pretty amazing the lack of concern about childcare,” she says. The vast majority of school districts on this schedule are still in rural areas, she explains, where people are typically less transient and parents are more likely to have extended family members who can pitch in living nearby. Parents may even work out of the house on a farm or ranch, so they get the kids involved (hence those chores). Even if they don’t, Dickhoff says some parents in her community set up their work schedules so they are off on Mondays to stay home with their kids.

Some districts do underwrite free or low-cost childcare for families that need it, but there’s not always the demand you’d expect. “A few districts actually started childcare on Friday to support parents and closed it because they didn’t have enough take up,” Dr. Morton says.

Four-Day School Weeks Have Staying Power

With benefits for strapped schools and most parents in support, four-day school weeks are likely only going to grow more common, at least in rural areas. In Missouri, Dr. Turner says, more than a third of the school districts have taken up truncated weeks — and only two districts have ever reverted back to five days.

“It’s a game changer for my family,” says Mounce. “As a parent, I firmly believe in the benefits.”

Jennifer Heimlich is a writer and editor with more than 15 years of experience in fitness and wellness journalism. She previously worked as the senior fitness editor for Well+Good and the editor in chief of Dance Magazine. A UESCA-certified running coach, she’s written about running and fitness for publications like Shape, GQ, Runner’s World, and The Atlantic.

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