INDEPENDENCE, Mo. — It’s Monday in September, but since the schools are closed, the children of the Pruente family have nowhere to go. Callahan, 13, wiggled and arched her back as Hudson, 7, played with balloons and Keegan, 10, played the piano.
Like more and more students in the United States, Pruente’s children are on a four-day school schedule, a change that took effect this fall in their district in Independence, Missouri.
For children it is something extraordinary. “I have three days off from school!” said Hudson.
But their mother, Brandi Pruente, a French teacher in a neighboring district outside Kansas City, is frustrated with finding activities to keep her children entertained and away from electronic devices while she works five days a week. a week.
“I feel like I’m back in jail time because of COVID-19,” 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 the advantages of hiring teachers, though some question the impact on students, who are already missing out on important learning opportunities. during the pandemic.
For parents there is the added complication, and cost, of arranging childcare for that extra day of the week. Although surveys show that parents generally agree, support declines among those with young children.
On Monday, Brandi Pruente was at home because Hudson had a mysterious rash on her arm. Most weeks, her oldest daughter takes care of her, with occasional help from her grandparents. He’s not interested in paying for the district’s $30-a-day daycare option. If you multiply that amount by more children, the account value increases.
“I want my children to be in an educational environment,” she explained, “and I don’t want to pay someone to take care of them.”
However, the childcare service provided by the district is not as convenient as it is not available in all schools. And in other districts with only four school days, many parents have to adjust their work schedules or turn to family members to help them on that day when child care is cut short because of the small number of students. student enrolled.
It’s especially problematic for parents of young children and those whose disabilities make finding childcare an extra challenge.
Of the more than 13,000 school districts nationwide, nearly 900 have cut schedules, 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 especially popular in rural communities, where families often have a parent living at home or a grandparent living 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 qualify for government-subsidized meals.
The district offers meals on Mondays, but not at all schools. Starting in October, students with learning difficulties can attend school on Mondays to receive extra help. Superintendent Dale Herl said that in talking with officials from other districts, he was convinced that parents would take care of other students.
“You have to check and see: what do parents do in the summer? “What do you do during spring break or Christmas break?” he said, noting that schools have days off during the week for occasions such as teacher conferences.
Since the pandemic, the number of districts administering three-day weekends has increased in Missouri from 12% to 30%. Some state lawmakers opposed it, arguing that students should spend more time with teachers. A legislative proposal that failed would have allowed students in four-day districts to transfer or attend private schools, with their home districts picking up the tab.
Others resort to a reduced schedule to save money. According to an analysis by the Economic Commission of the States, these savings are small: between 0.4% and 2.5% of their annual budget.
For many school systems — including Independence — that have extended school hours by another four school days, the hope is to improve teacher recruitment and retention. Some school systems making the switch are competing against districts that can pay up to $15,000 more, with 15 minutes added to the daily commute to school, said Jon Turner, associate professor of education. at Missouri State University. .
But when one district moves to a shorter school week, it gains an advantage over others.
Other districts quickly followed suit, making the shortened school week a “Band-Aid” solution with diminishing returns, according to Margie Vandeven, Missouri Commissioner of Education.
“If everyone were to adopt a four-day school week,” he said, “that would no longer be a recruiting strategy.”
In some communities, a four-day week works better for families. In the Turner District, in north-central Montana, taking Friday would avoid situations such as basketball games played in districts three or more hours apart, with a smaller number of student left.
The change also provides a day to work on family farms in this district with more than 50 students, Warren said, although he now also sees some larger districts adopting this. schedule.
“They made the change to a 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 have shown that the schedule does not hurt test scores when the other four school days are extended to make up for the time, Thompson said.
However, the Rand Corporation—a nonprofit research organization—found that performance differences among four-day districts, though initially hard to detect, became apparent over the years.
That worries Karyn Lewis of the research organization NWEA, whose recent study found that students are not making up all the academic fields lost during the pandemic.
“Now is not the time to do anything that will harm the amount of teaching that children receive,” he said.
At Independence, the hope is that a 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 in north Denver made the change in 2018 after several failed attempts to raise taxes to raise teacher pay. Because surrounding districts can pay more, teacher turnover becomes a problem.
Superintendent Will Pierce said the district’s own survey today shows that nearly 80% of parents and 85% of teachers support the schedule. “They report having a better quality of life,” he said.
The need for daycare, he said, is not great: 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 dropped slightly in the 27J district, and that home values also suffered compared to neighboring districts.
“Voters need 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 will not be at the expense of the community or the families of the district.”
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