Summer breaks from school get closer look in post-COVID environment

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Experts say year-round school could have educational benefits, but the love of summer break, which became the standard in the late 1800s, makes it a tough sell.  

Only 3 percent of public schools in the U.S. currently operate 12 months a year, while most students and teachers eagerly await their summer vacations. 

While some blame misconceptions around year-round scheduling for its drop in popularity, others say shifting to it can make the lives of families and teachers more difficult.  

How did summer break begin? 

The standard summer break in American schools began in the late 19th century, but there are competing theories as to what prompted the development.  

“I don’t think anybody has an authoritative answer to that question,” said Paul von Hippel, a professor of public policy, sociology, statistics and data science at the University of Texas in Austin.  

One idea had held that children were given time out of class to help pick crops, but von Hippel said the timeline doesn’t match up, as most harvests aren’t ready until the fall.  

Another suggestions is that it had to do with heat and poor ventilation in schools.  

“We started having summer vacation be largely because of heat, and it was harder to cool 100 years ago, especially,” said Jennifer Steele, a professor in the School of Education at American University. 

Due to climate change, that issue has returned: During the last academic year, hundreds of schools across the country had to cancel planned school days due to extreme heat.

Schools that keep the year-round education today 

The prevalence of year-round schooling has dropped even further in recent years, from 6 percent of all public schools in the 1990s to 3 percent in 2018.  

“The popularity of year-round calendars really peaked in late 1990s in California, and the reason for that was to deal with school crowding. It was very difficult under California law to build new schools,” von Hippel said.  

“So what they did in about 20 percent of elementary schools in California at the peak was they adopted a kind of staggered schedule, what’s called a multi-track, year-round calendar where different groups of kids were in school at different times, and so it was a year-round calendar in the sense that the summer break was a little shorter and there were more breaks throughout the rest of the year,” he added. 

“The name year-round education gives the impression that kids are in school all the time, and that’s just not true. There are a very small number of schools that have more than the usual 180 school days in this country,” von Hillpel said.  

Instead, on a year-round schedule, students tend to have shorter breaks but more of them, such as nine weeks of class and three weeks of break.  

The schedules do avoid some of the pitfalls of summer break, such as concerns about food insecurity for some students, and there are those who think they could help fight against absenteeism and learning loss.

When you say that you can’t do a year-round or balanced calendar, show me your attendance, and those days that there are high absentee rates, why don’t you consider making that day a professional day or a day off?” asked James Pedersen, superintendent at Essex County Schools of Technology and author of “Summer vs School:  The Possibility of the Year Round School.” 

While year-round education remains by far the exception and not the rule, the pandemic did lead to more individuals looking at alternative schooling options.

“COVID, I think, has a renewed interest in this, because everybody’s heard COVID learning loss” combined with fears of the summer slide, “so now we have this combined summer learning loss and COVID learning loss, which is both real things,” said Pedersen.

The potential future of year-round schooling 

Advocates for year-round education say communities will need to decide what works best for them, but that COVID-19 has made people look more closely at their options.  

“If we learned anything from COVID, it’s … that we could experiment with time, and we need to look at how we spend our time. We realized during COVID, we weren’t even spending the whole day in school anymore, right? […] If you look at by and large across the entire country, everybody did a modified schedule,” Pederson said.  

“There’s no research that says kids need to have two and a half months off,” he added.  

But some say the pros do not outweigh the cons, and that selling the public, lawmakers and teachers on all-year round school is not an easy task.  

“We have these norms around summer,” such as teenagers getting jobs or families going on vacations, said Steele. 

“I think the mainstream pull is to stick with the status quo of the three-month summer break because of these studies that have come out in the last 10 years or so showing that moving to a year-round school, to a year-round calendar, unless you change other things, creates logistical challenges without raising student achievement. So I don’t see that being a big trend in the near future,” Steele added.  

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