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The 4-day school week is on the rise, but is it the best move? Experts weigh in

Districts all over the country are shortening their schedules. Here are the 4-day school week pros and cons from educators and parents in the know.

The 4-day school week is on the rise, but is it the best move? Experts weigh in

For most parents, a five-day school week is what they’ve come to expect — it’s what they did as kids, it’s what their parents did and it’s what schools in the United States have largely done since the beginning of the 20th century. American schools, offices and child care centers have functioned on a five-day schedule for over a century. Why, then, are some schools reducing to a four-day school week?

To date in the U.S., nearly 900 school districts operate on a four-day week, including a quarter of districts in Missouri and nearly two-thirds in Colorado. While that is a small percentage of the nation’s schools overall, there’s been a sharp increase in the number of schools adopting shorter weeks since 2019, when only 650 districts modified their schedule. Schools that have made the switch cite many reasons including cost, teacher burnout, and a society that is shifting towards a more flexible work week in general. 

For parents of elementary-aged kids, though, the shift in schedule raises more questions than answers. Does a four-day school week reduce the amount of learning time? Are there benefits to a four-day week, such as time to rest and recharge? And, importantly, what do parents do about child care? Education experts — and parents — are not yet sure if this change will work. Here, they share how they’re navigating the change and the 4-day school week pros and cons that other parents and teachers might expect.

Why are schools switching to a 4-day week? 

Recent legislation in several states, like Pennsylvania and Missouri, means that more and more districts have the option to reduce their school week to just four days, but the fact is that some rural schools have been running on a shorter week for years. “Most school districts that consider this move — and it is a big one — first cite cost savings,” says Dr. Kathleen Corley, elementary school principal and author of “The Magical Place We Call School.” 

“Maintenance, energy and transportation come to mind most quickly,” she adds. “Fewer days in all of those buildings means four days’ worth of expenditures in these areas, not five.” In addition to maintenance and busing costs, schools have the ability to rent out their facilities, such as gyms and auditoriums. Many districts already do this on the weekends, so a four-day school week provides an additional revenue-generating day. 

“That money piece is a huge factor that can really help districts so they can provide more services for kids that really need them,” says Steve Bollar, a school climate expert who consults with many districts across the country.

“The landscape for education has changed, especially post-pandemic.”

—Steve Bollar, school climate expert

While shorter weeks have been somewhat common in rural areas of the country, the trend is growing, says Bollar. Charter schools and private schools are more likely to adopt an atypical schedule — particularly those designed for elite athletes or performers that need to fit school work in with intense practices. 

Additionally, Bollar says the typical work/school week has changed for many families. “The landscape for education has changed, especially post-pandemic,” he says. With remote work and constant connectivity, most parents find their jobs are no longer confined to school hours. 

How does a 4-day school week work?

While every district that adopts a four-day school week structures it a bit differently, the majority of districts operate on a Monday through Thursday schedule, leaving families a three-day weekend to recuperate each week. 

Most districts lengthen each day by a small amount of time — less than two hours. Many districts offer paid child care on the off weekdays, but some do not. 

At the high school level, schools that utilize a shorter week rely on asynchronous learning to address the curriculum — similar to most colleges and universities. Bollar says this can serve to prep kids for post-high school programs.  

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What are the benefits of a 4-day school week?

While the switch can be a logistical nightmare for some families, parents who have experienced a four-day week say it has gone better than they expected. Megan Trimber, a parent in Minnesota whose rural school has operated on a four-day week for years, says, “I know my own kids appreciate the four-day week. Often on Fridays, they can finish homework, get ahead or we can use it as a long weekend for family time.”

The educators we spoke to say students may benefit from a shorter school week in the following ways:

It gives kids more time to rest 

“Have you ever heard a parent talk about how their child is just plain tired?” says Corley. “With a Monday or a Friday off, a three-day weekend would be an outstanding time to catch up on the rest one might miss during a busy week.”

It lowers the risk of teacher burnout 

With teacher burnout on the rise, schools need to think about retention, says Corley. “Teachers sometimes struggle with medical and dental appointments for themselves and their family members.” Having a free weekday to make those appointments is helpful. Bollar adds that many schools utilizing a four-day week use the fifth day for training and professional development opportunities. 

“We have to think a little bit more holistically about how kids learn. If the quality of instruction is at the level that it needs to be at, it’s about quality — not quantity.”

—Steve Bollar

It can reduce absences 

Giving families a three-day weekend each week, as well as a free day each week for appointments, can result in fewer children missing class time and falling behind. It makes it easier for families to schedule short trips and routine medical care, which benefits everyone. 

It can foster a more robust learning environment 

“We have to think a little bit more holistically about how kids learn,” says Bollar. “If the quality of instruction is at the level that it needs to be at, it’s about quality — not quantity.” With longer class periods and more time for planning, many teachers functioning on a four-day schedule see positive effects.

The cons of a 4-day school week

Though four-day weeks can benefit teachers and students in several ways, they also present challenges, especially for working parents.

Shorter school weeks cause child care issues

Despite the fact that many careers are more flexible and/or remote post-pandemic, most parents still find it difficult or impossible to work with young children at home. Losing a day of school causes child care gaps. “Prior to Covid and the normalcy of working remote, there were parents who were trying to figure out how they’d handle child care for that day,” says Trimber.

Some four-day school districts offer additional child care during the week. “Our school offers care on Fridays and with so many that can work remotely, it doesn’t seem to be a bother anymore,” Timber says. While some schools offer paid child care options for the remaining weekday, that can still be difficult for many families to afford.

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Longer school days are hard for some children 

When schools lengthen each day slightly to fit five days of instruction into a four-day week, it does require some adjustment for students used to a shorter day. Luckily, with robust, quality education programs, most teachers find that kids adjust easily. 

For neurodivergent children, the added instruction time can be difficult. “They may have to take additional breaks, they might have to have a little bit more time off or breaks,” says Bollar. The plus side? An extra day off each week to move, play and explore. 

Extracurriculars can be complicated 

With school days running longer than normal, staying after for extracurricular activities can be tricky. Games and meets against neighboring schools that continue to use a five-day model can also become complicated, especially if some of those competitions are scheduled on the day when the school is closed. 

Is your school considering a 4-day week? 

It’s clear the educational landscape of this country is changing rapidly as remote work and atypical school schedules become more and more common. If your school is considering shortening the school week, the experts recommend asking some pertinent questions at any school board or community meetings that are held: 

  • How long will the new school day be? 
  • Will students receive more breaks or recess to help them manage a longer day? 
  • How will the curriculum be adjusted to fit the new schedule? 
  • Will there be child care options available on the fifth day?
  • Will additional child care be subsidized in any way? 

The bottom line

Transitioning to a four-day school week is a huge step, says Corley. It changes how students learn, family schedules and how parents approach their work. Corley also says that a major shift in any school calendar will have a domino effect on other programs and businesses in the community, so it’s a conversation that districts should approach with careful consideration. 

“There are two parts to that issue; the new calendar itself, and the fact that it is a change,” she says. “Change is hard. But sometimes change is good.”