As stated by our state’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), “[o]n March 11, the World Health Organization characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic. To slow the spread of the virus, on March 13, Governor Inslee ordered all public and private K–12 schools in Washington state to close through April 24.” OSPI Guidance and Resources, available here.
The potential for widespread and lengthy school shutdowns poses significant risks to children and could impact them for years to come. One option I have heard discussed among public health professionals is the idea of recommending rolling school shutdowns for months to manage the coronavirus social distancing precautions. This might be one way to help “flatten the curve” and keep our healthcare systems from becoming overwhelmed. I believe that, regardless of the coronavirus crisis, year-round school with the same number of school days would provide significant improvements in student outcomes and well-being. Current law requires 180 days of instruction per year in Washington. RCW 28A.150.220(5). Year-round school would allow the spreading out of the time off across the entire calendar year. This change has the potential to address some of the most significant challenges school districts face and save money.
Debates about year-round school are not new in education obviously. The idea that schools are almost universally off during the summer because of farming is a myth that overlooks a number of other factors that were at play historically.
“By misidentifying the roots of the current calendar, reformers fail to grapple with the fact that the same factors — budget crunches, demands for time off, concerns about over stressing students — still exist today. And absent addressing them, efforts to change the school year are likely to fail.” “The myth behind summer break and the challenge it creates for school reformers,” Washington Post, September 4, 2018.
Having worked in public schools, served as a former school district attorney, and now as a Partner at a law firm dedicated to education matters, I recommend changes to the school year because there are a few recurring issues at play in almost all of the legal disputes that originate in a school. For example, behind many instances of bullying or sexual harassment, there is almost always at least one staff member who was overwhelmed or burned out at their job and was unable to give a student the attention he or she needed in a moment of crisis. Cedar Law’s practice has consistently seen the following issues cause our clients and school districts significant suffering and loss across a wide range of legal matters we have handled: staff and student burnout, an inability to schedule interventions as summer arrives, and a lack of adequate funding and resources. Although no one solution will solve every problem in public education, there are reasons to believe that year-round education may have the potential to solve the most without monumental increases in spending. In fact, it is even possible year-round school would save districts money.
Any school district attorney who deals with employment matters and human resource departments could (if attorney-client privilege were waived) tell hundreds of stories about exhausted and overworked educators making bad decisions that led to risk management losses (“You mean the teacher actually put soap in the kid’s mouth for swearing!?”). The marathon that is the existing school year takes a toll on both staff and students, and we see every issue from inadequate special education evaluations to reactionary discipline being contributed to by overwhelmed and overworked staff. Obviously, the same fatigue sets in for children as well.
Another common challenge for educators and students is what I call the “race to summer” and the time it takes to recover and get up and running again when summer is over. The current school year has a predictable and time-honored pace: set expectations for the year during the first month of school, assess and instruct students, test them, identify who is succeeding and who is not, individualize instruction to meet kids where they are, then go home for summer. But as legal requirements such as documentation and testing have increased for teachers, the school day and year have not, and summer often arrives long before teachers can get through the entire process summarized above. There is also a natural impulse to delay difficult decisions and conversations with families so that the summer break makes them “unnecessary” and everyone can “start with a clean slate next year.” This could involve disciplinary matters, identifying students with disabilities and creating appropriate supports for them, and re-entry meetings after extended absences due to a crisis or disciplinary issue. Students fall behind and then never catch up the next year and the cycle starts all over.
If Districts adopted a year-round approach to education, they could spread the same number of resources across the entire calendar year. In most cases they could both improve student outcomes and save money. With weekends and holidays affecting when school could be held, you have 36 full working weeks of school that must be provided (180 divided by a 5-day work week). Spreading this out over the entire year would require an average of three weeks of instruction a month (36 divided by 12).
Obviously, this would look very different between large and small communities, but imagine a district with 100 schools for the sake of argument (i.e. Seattle, which currently has 113). Then consider a schedule where every student’s school was “on” for three weeks and then off for a week. You could spread the 180 days across the year any way the community preferred so long as you provided 180 days of instruction, i.e. 3 months on/1 month off, 3 weeks on/1 week off, etc.
Dividing this District into thirds or quarters would allow for clusters of 25-34 schools to operate on different schedules. This would then allow centralized staff, custodial, and busing services to focus on other clusters when one is closed, thereby reducing the number of staff needed to serve the entire district. This creates immediate budgetary savings. The more schools you can have closed at the same time, the more you can shift resources between them. This would also reduce the level of traffic and congestion in the community.
I start with discussing benefits to staff because they are the ones who must buy into this approach the most if it is ever to be adopted. Imagine how you would feel about your job if you knew that you had a significant break to relax or recover coming up every few weeks. Study after study and common sense consistently prove that happier and well-rested employees are more productive and make fewer mistakes. See, for example, this report by Forbes. Instead of the summer being a period where no instruction or training is being conducted by staff, regular breaks throughout the year could include more frequent training and coaching for both students and staff. Burnout would be reduced and mistakes would decrease.
It is not a stretch to predict that employee turnover would also be reduced. The Society for Human Resource Management states that, “[t]he business ramifications [of employee turnover] are enormous. Each employee departure costs about one-third of that worker’s annual earnings, including expenses such as recruiter fees, temporary replacement workers and lost productivity, according to the Work Institute.” Agovino, “To Have and to Hold,” 2019, available here. The importance of staff retention to school culture and efficiency cannot be overstated. More refreshed, well-rested, and happy teachers will provide more energized, thorough, and quality instruction for students. What is good for educators is also good for students.
The benefits that students would get from spreading 180 days of instruction over the calendar year are easy to identify and cannot be overstated. First of all, a truth about summer vacations that is embedded in state and federal law is that many students, especially those with disabilities, lose significant academic ground after long summer breaks. Special education laws, for example, require “extended school year” services for disabled students who experience “significant loss of skills or behaviors if educational services are interrupted” during summer breaks. See e.g. WAC 392-172A.02020; 34 CFR 300.106. By moving to a 180 over 365 approach, no student would experience an almost 3-month break in their instruction. The retention of information would improve for everyone and less time would need to be spent at the beginning of the school year catching everyone up both academically and socially.
In addition, children undergoing stress (related or unrelated to school) would have regular breaks from school (or home) to recover and rest. Whether school or home is a source of stress or solace, there would be more consistent contact with each placement and no large portion of time where harmful dynamics or a lack of nutrition and instruction could put them at risk. Obviously, children benefit from week-long breaks just as adults do, so the stress-relief that would benefit staff would also benefit students.
The more consistent time off could also be used to provide supplemental instruction in case a child is falling behind academically. The opportunity for high school students to use the breaks to pursue additional credits would then provide the infrastructure through which dropout reduction efforts are available throughout the year, rather than in after-school, online, or summer programs. Some students with additional needs could even be provided additional instruction in other clusters that are still operating when their schools are closed. Our law practice regularly has legal matters open related to all of these issues. The “rush to summer” that lets so many children slip through the cracks would no longer exist. Students and staff would both perceive more time to focus on academics and there would be supports available from the regular breaks and financial savings to address many issues that lead to student failures now.
Year-round school has been attempted in a number of districts across the country. Many Indiana Districts have adopted year-round school schedules in the past 4 years. One family I spoke with from that area stated that people grumbled about the transition but have generally preferred the new schedules once they got used to them.
Warren Township Supt. Dena Cushenberry says many Marion County schools have already transitioned to a balanced school calendar. “We have two weeks (of school break) in August and October, then we have two weeks (of school break) at Christmas time and in the spring. That first week (of summer), we do what we call our ‘summer school’ but it’s intercession, so instead of waiting to catch kids up in the summer, we’re able to do it (about) every nine weeks.” She continues, “And that’s the beauty of it. Kids don’t have to wait. You can give them real time remediation as they need it. Now, we’re using that time for enrichment for STEM activities for some of our schools.”
Not all districts report success with their experiments, however. One Superintendent in Indiana reported that “the previous calendar’s eight-week summer was too short for administrators, teachers, and parents. He added maintenance staff also had trouble completing projects in such a short amount of time.” “Back to school in July? Indiana district sticks to year-round calendar,” Courier Journal, July 26, 2018. Prior experiments by other districts provide lessons with which to design a successful transition. For example, one study published in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice stated the following:
Students may lose knowledge and skills achieved in the school year during the summer break, with losses greatest for students from low-income families. Community Guide systematic review methods were used to summarize evaluations (published 1965-2015) of the effectiveness of year-round school calendars (YRSCs) on academic achievement, a determinant of long-term health. In single-track YRSCs, all students participate in the same school calendar; summer breaks are replaced by short “intersessions” distributed evenly throughout the year. In multi-track YRSCs, cohorts of students follow separate calendar tracks, with breaks at different times throughout the year. An earlier systematic review reported modest gains with single-track calendars and no gains with multi-track calendars. Three studies reported positive and negative effects for single-track programs and potential harm with multi-track programs when low-income students were assigned poorly resourced tracks. Lack of clarity about the role of intersessions as simple school breaks or as additional schooling opportunities in YRSCs leaves the evidence on single-track programs insufficient. Evidence on multi-track YRSCs is also insufficient.
Finnie, R. et al 2019. “Examining the Effectiveness of Year-Round School Calendars on Improving Educational Attainment Outcomes Within the Context of Advancement of Health Equity. A Community Guide Systematic Review.” Journal of Public Health Management and Practice: November/December 2019, Volume 25: Issue 6; p 590-594. Emphasis added.
Consistent with this study’s preliminary findings that low-income students being assigned to poorly resourced calendar tracks had negative outcomes the same concern was echoed by the Superintendent cited above who also stated that the remediation efforts attempted during off weeks were not funded adequately and later abandoned. “Back to school in July? Indiana district sticks to year-round calendar,” Courier Journal, July 26, 2018. As always, the decisions related to equity in education must be backed up with adequate resources in order to be more than hollow promises.
Obviously, a transition to such a year-round schedule would pose significant changes to the traditions that have evolved around the typical school year. It would also require certain investments. For example, childcare and the youth camp industry that springs into place every year when school lets out would be affected. “Summer camps” in the area would have to transition away from the yearly hiring that they have to conduct in order to staff summer positions. On the other hand, they may be able to offer year-round offerings to serve the group of students who are out of school at any given time. There would also obviously need to be investments in air conditioning that is not available at many schools because they have always shut down during summer (those changes have been needed for years however as climate change already expands hot weather into the current school year). And, of course, teachers would need to agree to give up their long summer vacations every year in their collective bargaining agreements. Whether teachers would need additional compensation for such a plan is also worthy of debate and would need to be discussed through collective bargaining (many of them would be unable to work summer jobs they rely on now). They deserve higher pay across the board as it is, so I see little need to discuss how potential salary implications affect this proposal here.
Designing the school year for society’s current needs is an opportunity that the coronavirus may force us to adopt but which could also bring about significant long-term solutions for student and staff welfare. Again, I emphasize how large the number of legal disputes we see at Cedar is that are affected by a loss of learning over long breaks and how the race to summer creates a pressure-cooker environment in which staff and students make decisions that lead to legal liability. 180 over 365 might be a powerful way to improve outcomes and manage risk for districts.
 Fiscal limitations, a desire to appease parental vacation schedules, and efforts to standardize school schedules across states were all at play in addition to farming cycles. The article by Dean Gold, a Dean of Education, in the Washington Post and cited to above, succinctly summarizes the inaccuracies of the myth that summers off was exclusively tied to farming.
 In very small districts, imagine having one of the high schools, for example, operating while the other one is closed.
 And maybe this would add to the social distancing that we are using to address the coronavirus crisis. This article is obviously not about that anymore, however, and I leave that to the public health experts to evaluate.
 But, they could plan more ski trips. Every change has its pros and cons.