News
Is It Time to Reconsider the Year-Round School Schedule?
Getty

With schools rethinking how to educate students in 2020-21, some may turn to options they'd previously dismissed as too disruptive, too unpopular, or too onerous to plan for and execute.

The most prominent one? Year-round schooling, or a balanced calendar schedule, its lesser-known but more accurate name. In short, this option extends the academic calendar, shortens the summer break, and builds in regular intersessions for remediation, enrichment, and accelerated programs.

Year-round schools have been touted for reducing summer learning loss and improving teacher and student morale. But it's proven unpopular too, for its disruption to family and communities' routines, which are closely intertwined with the traditional school calendar. An estimated four percent of schools, serving about 3 million students, follow a year-round schedule, according to the National Association for Year-Round Education.

But the model provides some clear upsides for schools as the pandemic continues.

District and school leaders are confronting difficult, high-stakes decisions as they plan for how to reopen schools amid a global pandemic. Through eight installments, Education Week journalists explore the big challenges education leaders must address, including running a socially distanced school, rethinking how to get students to and from school, and making up for learning losses. We present a broad spectrum of options endorsed by public health officials, explain strategies that some districts will adopt, and provide estimated costs.

Part 1: The Socially Distanced School Day
Part 2: Scheduling the COVID-19 School Year

It spreads attendance out across more months, and opens up more space on campuses to adhere to social distancing guidelines if districts opt to use more than one attendance track, where one group attends school for a particular period, while others are on break, and vice versa.

It allows schools to easily recoup learning days if they have to shut down because of a local outbreak. And it has built-in opportunities for remediation to address the learning losses that accrued during remote learning in the spring.

"I'm thinking we're going to see more balanced calendar schools next fall and going forward as we continue to grapple with this particular virus," said David G. Hornak, the superintendent of Holt Public Schools, in Holt, Mich., and the executive director of the National Association for Year-Round Education.

Here's what a year-round schedule can look like:

Students receive at least 180 days of in-person instruction, as required by most states. Summer break is one month, not two. Other breaks are sprinkled across the year.

In one version, students attend school for six to nine weeks and then break for three weeks.

In the 6,000-student Holt school system, for example, schools on a balanced calendar start the first week of August and end in late June. (In contrast, schools on a traditional calendar in Michigan often open after Labor Day, and the school year continues through early June.)

The schools take a two-week break in October, during which students can participate in enrichment and remediation programs. There's another weeklong break in February, and two weeks off in April. Because intersessions are used for enrichment or remediation, the district technically adds 25 more instructional days to the school year than Michigan's required minimum of 180 days.

Adopting this model will still require adherence to public health practices during the pandemic, including social distancing, mask-wearing, hand-washing and sanitizing, and increased cleaning protocols in and around school buildings.

How to make it work:

Local context is everything. How school districts structure their year-round calendars hinges on what local communities decide works best. Enrollment size is a key factor, for example, in deciding whether all students can attend at the same time or whether multi-track attendance is better.

Local infection rates and other public health guidelines will also heavily influence districts' decisions.

Buy-in from teachers is an essential first step and in districts with collective bargaining, the teachers' union is a critical partner. Outlining the benefits of a year-round calendar, along with articulating clear goals for the switch to a new calendar are part of getting buy-in.

Once they've got teachers on board, leaders can approach parents and the community. Community support is crucial because the district must work with local child-care providers to ensure there are child-care options for parents during the more frequently scheduled breaks. And many local businesses often rely on high school students to work during the summer-a less pressing concern now, perhaps, in the pandemic; but those businesses also need to be included, Hornak said.

Districts must set up enrichment and remediation programs-either in person or remotely-for students during the intermissions. Teachers who agree to provide that instruction and support must be paid stipends for their work during those breaks, in addition to their salaries.

Because it's a dramatic change, Hornak recommends that district leaders work with an expert who has experience with year-round schools. A proposal, he said, can be derailed if a community member asks a question and district leaders don't have the answer.

Typically, more teachers aren't necessary. But in the pandemic-with social distancing protocols in place-some new hiring and/or expansion of the substitute pool may be required. Staffing for transportation on a year-round basis may need to change. And how custodians and nurses are assigned to school may need to be adapted for following increased sanitizing and cleaning schedules and health protocols.

And because district leaders are pressed for time to get this rolling during the summer, they should immediately ask principals and supervisors to start working on plans they can execute on a quick turnaround.

Pros:

  • Schools provide a daily routine of face-to-face teaching, which puts them in a better position to respond to students' educational, social, emotional, and mental-health needs.
  • Year-round schools traditionally start earlier, so students can be back in classrooms sooner.
  • The built-in intersessions will allow schools to readily plug in remediation and support programs to address learning loss.
  • The shorter teaching cycles are less stressful for teachers and students. Teachers only have to plan for a few weeks at a time, and students get to take regular breaks and recharge.
  • Multi-track year-round calendars can help districts efficiently use the space they have.
  • Allows schools to shut down if an outbreak occurs without losing a lot of instructional time.
  • Helps close opportunity gaps for lower income, special education, and other at-risk students who may not have access to the same resources and learning opportunities as their more-affluent peers during traditional summer breaks.

Cons:

  • Some risk of exposure or transmission of the virus.
  • Subject to rapid shifts to remote learning if there's a local outbreak of COVID-19.
  • Need adequate supplies of masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer for staff and students, all new expenses.
  • Increased cleaning and sanitizing schedules, which may require more custodial staff.
  • New spending to pay for teachers' stipends to work during intersessions.
  • Transportation costs and complexity may rise to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
  • Parent resistance to disrupted work and vacation routines and challenges with child care during intersessions.
  • Reduced summer job opportunities for students and teachers.
  • Requires special consideration and accommodations for teachers in high-risk categories, which may include work they can do from home or furloughing them until things return to normal.
  • Requires formal agreement with the teachers' union.