Four-day weeks are gaining steam in school districts across the U.S. as a cost-cutting measure. But this trend may create major headaches for working parents.
Nationally, 850 school districts, representing thousands of individual schools, have dropped the fifth day of instruction, up from 650 districts in 2019, pre-pandemic, according to research out of Oregon State University. The model, driven by a need to cut costs and fill teacher vacancies, has proven particularly popular with rural, Western districts. For example, almost 60 Texas school districts made the switch to a four-day week or approved it for next year. But, it’s catching on with more metropolitan school districts too. Districts in Denver, Missouri, Phoenix and San Antonio are also considering the switch.
The four-day week has been a popular model in the business world too. Over the last two years, hundreds of companies have adopted the four-day workweek, in an attempt to meet the rise in demand for more flexible work schedules from employees who want an improved work-life balance. And many now put it front and center in their company values when hiring and retaining talent.
But it’s by no means the dominant working model, with most businesses still operating on a traditional five-day workweek. And for working parents on five-day working schedules, the idea of a four-day school week for their kids would likely have them breaking out in a cold sweat.
Andrea Phillips, a RAND policy researcher who studied the four-day school week in six states pre-pandemic, believes that it could also create problems for districts that adopt the shorter week model too.
“One of the advantages of the four-day school week is that you can take that extra time that you’re not in school to go to doctor’s appointments or other things,” said Phillips. “If businesses, primarily medical, moved to a four-day week themselves, kids are going to have to start missing school again to go to the doctor.”
However, the most usual case is when the local work community remains on the five-day workweek while the district is on four, according to Paul Thompson, an economics professor at Oregon State University who led a 12-state study on four-day school weeks. That scenario immediately poses questions around child care, a burden that often falls on mothers, who might be working five days.
In areas that adopted four-day school weeks, mothers’ labor incomes fell as a result of the change, according to a 2019 paper by Jason Ward, associate director at the RAND Center on Housing and Homelessness in Los Angeles, called “The Four-day School Week and Parental Labor Supply.” That suggests there could be a trade off with parents’ employment with this four-day model. Estimates indicate that, among mothers with children between the ages of 5 and 13, increasing four-day week enrollment from 0% to 25% of an area’s students causes an 11% decrease in employment.
“A lot of schools are doing very little in terms of child care,” said Thompson. “We hear several different challenges for this day off. Providing child care cuts into potential cost savings for the district. They opt out of providing any services and think of it as a traditional weekend.”
It’s shifting the burden of child care onto families, he stressed. “Additional finances need to be pooled for a babysitter or cutting back on your own work hours to be home to provide child care,” he added.
However, Phillips said Oregon State University research found that there were fewer issues around child care than one might imagine. “We saw it rarely,” said Phillips. “We found that students were largely with their families on the fifth day. They weren’t in school, they weren’t home alone, they were with their families or at a friend’s house or at another family member’s house.”
That’s largely thanks to intergenerational families and communities, where a grandparent or someone else can help take care of that child, she added.
Well-resourced schools are able to help parents offset any child care cost increases. For example, the 27J school district in Denver, which has the largest four-day school week program in an urban setting, has an extensive child care program to help avoid shifting the burden entirely onto families. But that’s not the norm, especially because some districts make the switch to a four-day week to cut costs.
Thompson said that another issue is that the research around the four-day school week may not give the complete picture, as not all working parents would have time to fill out surveys or attend school meetings about it.
“There are big equity concerns around lack of child care, food provision and physical education opportunities because some families have more flexible work schedules, a stay-at-home parent or other family member around while other families don’t,” said Thompson. “Maybe for the average family this works very well, but for others it might not work when there is a single parent or two working parent households.”
Phillips said research also found that some families adjusted their work schedules where they could. For example, people who worked in the hospital system could change their schedule so it synchronized with the four days that their child is in school. There are also parents who might work at the school districts themselves, which means they will work the same four-day schedule.
But for working parents who don’t have shift work, it could be a bigger challenge. “If you don’t have multigenerational households, businesses in ranching or farming or these other industries, or medical fields where you can adjust schedules, it can be a real problem, challenge or burden for families,” said Phillips. “You would have to find child care on the fifth day and pay for that.”
These are some of the things that the Independence School District (ISD) in Missouri had to consider before adopting the four-day school week policy at the end of 2022. “Child care was the number one concern from parents,” said Dr. Dale Herl, ISD superintendent.
The ISD will become the largest district in the state to adopt the new schedule, which goes into effect for the 2023-2024 academic year. There are over 140 other districts in Missouri that have also adopted the four-day school week. That’s been driven by the need to retain and attract staff, especially given recent teacher burnout rates. The district saw a 105% increase in teacher applications from May 2022 to May 2023. Retirements and resignations are also down 40%.
In response to the child care concern, the ISD will offer child care for the fifth day at a cost of $30 a day. Herl said he’s unsure if other small businesses in the community will begin to offer four-day work weeks alongside the school’s decision.