INDEPENDENCE, Mo. (AP) — It’s a Monday in September, but with schools closed, the Pruente family’s children have nowhere to go. Callahan, 13, wriggles and arches his back while Hudson, 7, plays with a balloon and Keegan, 10, plays the piano.
Like a growing number of students in the United States, the Pruente children are on a four-day school schedule, a change that went into effect this fall in their district in Independence, Missouri.
For children it is something fantastic. “I have a three-day break from school!” Hudson exclaimed.
But their mother, Brandi Pruente, a French teacher in a neighboring district on the outskirts of Kansas City, is frustrated by having to find activities to keep her children entertained and away from electronic devices while she works five days a week.
“I feel like I’ve gone back to the time of the COVID-19 lockdown,” he commented.
Hundreds of school systems across the country have adopted four-day weeks in recent years, especially in rural and western areas. Among the reasons for that choice, districts cite cost savings and advantages in hiring teachers, although some have questioned the effects on students, who have already lost significant learning during the pandemic.
For parents there is also the added complication, and cost, of arranging childcare for that extra day of the week. Although surveys show parents generally approve, support wanes among those with younger children.
That Monday, Brandi Pruente was home because Hudson had a mysterious rash on her arm. Most weeks, it is his eldest daughter who takes care of him, with occasional help from her grandparents. She’s not interested in paying for the district’s $30-a-day daycare option. If you multiply that amount by several children, the amount in the account skyrockets.
“I want my children to be in an educational environment,” she explained, “and I don’t want to pay for someone to take care of them.”
Even so, the childcare service the district provides is not as convenient because it is not available at all schools. And in other districts that only have four days of school, so many parents adapt their work schedules or turn to family members to help them on that day that childcare has been cut due to the low number of students enrolled.
That’s especially problematic for parents of young children and those whose disabilities can make finding child care an extra challenge.
Across more than 13,000 school districts nationwide, nearly 900 are on a truncated schedule, up from 662 in 2019 and just over 100 in 1999, said Paul Thompson, associate professor of economics at Oregon State University.
This practice has become popular especially in rural communities, where families usually have a parent who stays at home or a grandparent who lives nearby. But Independence, best known for its ties to President Harry Truman, is anything but rural: it has 14,000 students, about 70% of whom are eligible for government-subsidized meals.
The district offers meals on Mondays, but not at all schools. Starting in October, students who have learning difficulties will be able to attend school on Mondays to receive extra help. Superintendent Dale Herl said that in talking with officials from other districts, he became convinced that parents would manage to take care of other students.
“You have to examine and see: what do parents do in the summer? What do they do during spring break or Christmas break?” he commented, noting that schools already had days off during the week for special occasions. like conferences for teachers.
Since the pandemic, the number of districts managing three-day weekends has increased in Missouri from 12% to 30%. Some state lawmakers have opposed it, arguing that students need to spend more time with teachers. One legislative proposal that failed would have allowed students in four-day districts to transfer to or attend private schools, with their home districts picking up the tab.
Some resort to a reduced schedule to save money. According to an analysis by the Economic Commission of the States, these savings are modest: between 0.4% and 2.5% of their annual budgets.
For many school systems — including Independence — that have extended school hours on the other four school days, the hope is to boost teacher recruitment and retention. Some school systems that make the switch are competing against districts that are able to pay up to $15,000 more, with just 15 minutes added to the daily commute to get to school, said Jon Turner, associate professor of education at Missouri State University. .
But when a district switches to a shorter school week, it gains a hiring advantage over others.
Other districts are quick to follow suit, making the shortened school week a “band-aid” solution with diminishing returns, according to Margie Vandeven, Missouri Commissioner of Education.
“If everyone adopts a four-day school week,” he said, “that’s no longer a recruiting strategy.”
In some communities, the four-day week is better for families. In Turner District, in north-central Montana, taking Fridays off avoids situations like basketball games played in districts three or more hours away, with only a small number of students remaining. students at the school, Superintendent Tony Warren said.
The change also provides another day to work on family farms in this district of just over 50 students, Warren said, although he now also sees some larger districts adopting this schedule.
“They are making the change to the four-day week because all the surrounding districts have adopted a four-day week,” he said.
The effect on academic performance is unclear, although some studies show that the schedule does not hurt test scores if the other four school days are lengthened to compensate for the time, Thompson says.
However, the Rand Corporation—a nonprofit research organization—found that performance differences in four-day districts, although initially difficult to detect, became evident over several years.
That worries Karyn Lewis of the research organization NWEA, whose recent study found that students are not making up all the academic ground they lost during the pandemic.
“Now is not the time to do anything that will jeopardize the amount of instruction kids receive,” he said.
At Independence, the hope is that the short-day program for students with academic difficulties, which will begin soon, will help them catch up with their peers. Meanwhile, older students can take classes at a community college.
Only a few large districts have adopted the four-day week. District 27J north of Denver made the change in 2018 after several failed attempts to raise taxes to boost teacher salaries. Because surrounding districts could pay more, teacher turnover had become a problem.
Superintendent Will Pierce said the district’s own surveys now show that nearly 80% of parents and 85% of teachers support the schedule. “They report that there is quality of life,” he declared.
Demand for daycare, he said, has not been huge: Fewer than 300 children use the free day program in the 20,000-student district.
However, a study published this year found that test scores had dropped slightly in the 27J district, and that home values had also suffered compared to neighboring districts.
“Voters have to think about the disadvantages,” said Frank James Perrone, one of the study’s authors and an associate professor of educational leadership at Indiana University.
Teacher retirements have decreased in Independence and job applications have increased since the schedule was changed. And that’s all good, Brandi Pruente acknowledged.
“But,” he added, “it cannot be at the expense of the community or the families of the district.”
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