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Has COVID-19 Created an Opportunity to Transition to Year-Round School?

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Year-round school graphic
Lauren Green
As educators reimagine education in the face of coronavirus, a listener and former teacher asks if educators might consider switching to a year-round calendar with breaks spread throughout the year, instead of one long break over summer.

The coronavirus pandemic has educators re-imagining how K-12 education will look in the future. As part of WKSU’s “Learning Curve,” our “OH Really?” team received a question about whether now might be a good time to transition to a year-round calendar for public schools and what that could mean for students, parents, and teachers.

Paul von Hippel is a professor of public policy at The University of Texas and was previously at The Ohio State University. In the past 15 years, he’s authored two studies on what it means to transition from the traditional school calendar to year-round.

Paul von Hippel: “What most U.S. schools do is something like nine-months-on/three-months-off. And the various year-round alternatives have shorter breaks that are more regular: instead of nine months/three months, it might be nine-weeks-on, three-weeks-off. Or six-weeks-on, two-weeks-off. You have these longer breaks throughout the school year and a shorter summer break. What most people don't appreciate about a year-round calendar is that it doesn't actually have any more school days.”

Kabir Bhatia: “What about the impact on teachers? In your report, you mentioned that sometimes districts with year-round calendars find that they're losing experienced teachers to nearby districts with a traditional calendar.”

von Hippel: “Yeah, there's not a whole lot of literature on this. There was one study on teachers’ ability to moonlight. You know, some teachers have second jobs that they take on during the summer and that's harder to do when they have short breaks throughout the year and are not available in the summer. There is a concern that teachers are not crazy about this calendar. In fact, when the Chicago Public Schools teachers were on strike, one of their demands was that Chicago stop flirting with the year-round calendar.”

Bhatia: “What about the impact on students? Our ‘question-asker’ was a teacher, and she noticed a big slide over the summer among her first-graders, but you found that didn’t have much of an overall impact.”

von Hippel: “When you look at outcomes like achievement, it's basically a wash. Studies have been done in California and in North Carolina, where schools have switched off-and-on from the year-round calendar several times over the last couple of decades. The idea that by shortening summer break kids are going to have higher test scores, it just doesn't seem to be substantiated by the best available research.”

Bhatia: “So is there an increased cost for things like air conditioning or, up here, heating?”

von Hippel: “It really varies. In warmer climates, places like Las Vegas, which has used year-round calendars in response to the population boom that takes place there, and then switches back to a traditional calendar when there's a bust. The finding in Las Vegas is that it can save money in the sense that if you have kids on different year-round calendars and kind of stagger them, then there are different subsets of kids in the building [and] you can actually serve more kids with the same number of buildings. So year-round calendars were an early way to experiment with staggered calendars that resemble the staggered calendars that we've used in response to COVID-19. So there can be savings there. You get more use out of the building."

“There can also be costs in that, in Las Vegas, using a year-round calendar meant that more kids would need to be bused in the summer, and so there was more air conditioning needed in the buses and in the schools. And that cost something.”

Bhatia: “So how do parents handle it when a district goes year-round?”

von Hippel: “There was some early research based on surveys of parents, asking them how they liked the year-round calendar after a switch. That research was pretty problematic because there were no parallel surveys of parents whose calendars hadn’t switched. If you actually look at how parents behave in response to a calendar change, they tend to move away from areas that have adopted a year-round calendar and move to parts of town that don't have it.

“You see this in Wake County, N.C., for example. The property values decline just a little bit after a school adopts a year-round calendar; parents tend to vote with their feet. It tends not to be positive, and one reason for that is the havoc that the calendar can wreck on family life. If every school in the district switches to a year-round calendar at the same time, that's just fine. But what often happens is that some schools switch and some don't. Or there may be different schools that have different staggered schedules, and if you think about being a parent and having several kids in school, if they're all on different schedules, it can be pretty overwhelming. And there's evidence from California that mothers are less likely to return to the workforce when their kids start school if the schools operate on a year-round calendar, than if they don't. So I think that explains some of the lack of popularity that the calendars have with parents.”

Now it’s your turn: What do you think about a year-round school calendar? Sound off about year-round school below, and you might be in the next edition of “OH Really?”


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Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.