Nebraska schools are going to a four-day week. Teachers are pumped. Research is spotty.
WEEPING WATER – Superintendent Kevin Reiman had a problem. He couldn’t find new teachers. He was lucky to get even a few applicants for jobs that used to bring in fifty resumes.
So, in spring 2022, Reiman took an idea to the school board of Weeping Water Public Schools.
What about a four-day school week?
Reiman expected the board to take a year to study the possibility.
Instead, it unanimously approved a four-day schedule for the 2022-2023 school year.
This fall, Weeping Water became at least the sixth Nebraska school district to go to a four-day week. It’s a move that thrilled the school’s teachers, burnt out after teaching through a pandemic and brutal fights over public education. It’s a switch that’s worked better than expected for many parents, including those originally worried about a short week.
But the change also raises questions about whether a four-day week is best for students. The research is limited, unclear and sometimes worrisome. One study suggested that students on a four-day week fall behind learning math. Another found that the test scores of four-day students dipped slightly below their five-day counterparts, though a third showed that four-day students actually did better.
“Instructional time matters,” said Emily Morton, a researcher with NWEA, an education research nonprofit. “The amount of time that kids are actually at school is playing into how much they’re growing.”
As schools struggle to find qualified teachers, more and more smaller Nebraska school districts are mulling a four-day week to lure them.
Larger school districts have leaned on hiring bonuses and retention stipends to attract and keep staff. But that’s not always an option in places like Weeping Water, where 299 students share one building.
“Smaller schools, we don’t have the financial resources to throw money at people to stay,” Reiman said. “I just can’t compete with those types of things.”
Conestoga Public Schools, Weeping Water’s neighbor to the east, has been on a four-day schedule since 2006. That 700-student district located a 30-mile drive south of Omaha made the switch while trying to claw its way out of a $1.4 million budget hole.
Seventeen years later, the district has stayed on a four-day week because teachers, parents and students all love it, said Eric Dennis, elementary school principal in the district.
Four-day school weeks affect a tiny – but fast-growing – percentage of U.S. students. Some 1,600 schools had shortened their week by 2019, according to one estimate, up from only 250 schools at the tail-end of the 20th century.
The current number is likely even higher, Morton said. The schedule is largely used in western states, and in rural school districts.
“Historically, districts adopted this for financial reasons,” Morton said. “They don’t stay on it for that reason. They stay on it because their community loves it. The conversation has shifted towards teacher recruitment and retention.”
At least six Nebraska districts are on a four-day week: Banner County, Conestoga, Weeping Water, Minatare, Hay Springs, and Wynot. The Nebraska Department of Education doesn’t keep track. And when one district makes the change, others are likely to follow. Reiman said he fielded calls from fellow superintendents after Weeping Water announced its new schedule.
The schedule looks different in every school district: In Weeping Water, teachers work every other Monday, spending that day on professional development training and classroom planning.
Banner County has turned Fridays into “optional enrichment.” Students can attend different activities like crafts, chess club, sports or driver’s ed. Teachers run these sessions, and also have time to plan lessons and grade assignments. More than half of Banner’s 145 students attend each Friday, said superintendent Evelyn Browne.
Nebraska schools have the flexibility to take on a four-day week because the state doesn’t measure the school year in days, but in hours: 1,032 for elementary, and 1,080 for high school.
“It’s a local control decision,” said David Jespersen, spokesperson for the Nebraska Department of Education. “We really leave it up to the school districts to decide, as long as they can show us the 1,032 and the 1,080.”
Reiman said Weeping Water received surprisingly few questions from parents about the four-day week when it was first proposed.
Some wondered if it would extend the school year – it wouldn’t. Instead, the district extended the school day by 20 minutes. Another asked if it would cut into services for special education students. It didn’t in Weeping Water, but could become an issue in larger school districts.
Childcare tends to be the biggest question when districts consider a four-day week, said Jack Moles, executive director of the Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association.
“It ends up being a day that there are several babysitters around, because high school students don’t have class,” he said.
Blake Henderson, a junior at Weeping Water, now splits her Mondays between babysitting and catching up on her college-level courses.
Mondays are “doctor days,” her mother Anne said – when the family can schedule appointments and not worry about missing school.
At first, Anne Henderson worried the four-day week would interrupt her work-from-home work week. But the family has fallen into a routine, she said. Her two younger children do their chores and homework, while she gets work done.
At school, it seems like teachers feel “lighter,” Henderson said. Wenzl, the elementary principal, agreed.
“When [the superintendent] sent out the email, you could just see the morale lift instantly last spring,” Wenzl said. “I feel like [teachers] felt that their voice was heard about burnout.”
Tracy Weber, a middle school English and language arts teacher at Weeping Water, said the difference in her stress levels is “incredible.”
Before, Weber would spend her Sunday afternoons prepping for the week ahead, writing lesson plans and grading papers for hours. This year, the grading and planning happen on Mondays.
“I’m just happier as a teacher, because I have more time for my family now,” she said. “I feel more prepared to teach. And I’m a better teacher for it.”
She thinks the new schedule will help prevent burnout – and early retirement – among older teachers. And she thinks it’ll help attract younger teachers at a time when Nebraska schools desperately need them.
According to a survey of Nebraska schools, this year, the state faced 769 unfilled positions – meaning the job was either left vacant, or filled by someone unqualified.
Of those 769 positions, 208 were left vacant. That’s more than triple the number of reported vacancies last year.
In Banner County, Browne posted an opening for a math teacher in September. One person applied. A science teacher position has been listed since November. She’s seen zero applicants.
It’s not unheard of for teachers to get job offers on the spot, principals said.
“They’re just getting gobbled up,” said Dennis, Conestoga’s elementary principal. “Out west, they were seeing it beforehand. We’re starting to see it here on the east.”
But Conestoga so far hasn’t felt the brunt of teacher departures and vacancies, Dennis said. Why? The four-day week, he says.
Four-day school weeks tend to have an unusually high approval rate, Morton said. Nationally, 85% of parents and 95% of students said they would choose to stay on a four-day week, according to a 2021 RAND survey. A local survey at Conestoga shows parent approval has gone from 75% when the district first made the change to about 90% now.
But the shortened schedule isn’t without drawbacks, Morton said.
One 2021 study of Oregon students found that a four-day week cut one-sixth of the gains a fifth grader would usually make in math, equal to about five weeks of school
Schools on a four-day see a small but negative effect on academic achievement, according to a 2022 analysis of the test scores of 12,000 students across six states.
But, when isolating the data to just rural students, test scores stayed the same.
Most existing research relies on pre-COVID numbers, Morton said. Four-day weeks are still largely under-researched – even as small towns like Weeping Water increasingly make the switch.
“It affects very few students in each state,” Morton said. “And I think it often gets missed for that reason. But when it’s happening across rural communities across the U.S., the total number of students being impacted by it is not insignificant.”
With an extra day at home, the transition into school has been harder for Weeping Water kindergarteners, Wenzl said. The school day now runs till 4 p.m., so teachers have to pace the day with brain breaks to make sure their younger students don’t burn out.
High schoolers have told teachers if they miss a day of school, they feel more behind than before – they’re missing a quarter of the week compared to a fifth. To fight that, the district sometimes holds “Monday school” to help kids catch up.
Weber said her English classes are about a month behind compared to the year before. But she’s hopeful they’ll adjust over the next few years.
“You need to use your instructional time to the best that you can,” said Amy Kroll, director of school improvement and student services at Weeping Water. “What standards do we really need to be focusing on? It makes you more intentional about your teaching.”
That adjustment period is normal, Dennis said. In Conestoga, test scores dipped for about two years before getting back on track, he said.
“Education-wise, we’re not missing anything,” he argued. “If I ever see that happening, then yeah, I’ll start screaming that we need to go back to a five-day week.”
Earlier this year, Superintendent Jon Rother asked teachers in Johnson County Central Schools their thoughts on a four-day week. Of staff, 82% were supportive. 72% of community members liked the idea as well.
Like Weeping Water, Rother was looking at it as a way to attract and retain teachers. But his district decided against it for now. Half of the school’s students are on free and reduced lunch, and Rother worried it would harm students who need school as a refuge.
“I wish I could say every home is loving and nurturing, but that’s just not the reality for some,” Rother said. “How do you justify going to a four-day week and saying, ‘Hey kid, you’re on your own that day’?”
Some states have started to slow the number of schools switching to a four-day week. In New Mexico, lawmakers placed a moratorium on the move, citing concerns that fewer days in school would impact academic achievement.
In 2019, Oklahoma lawmakers increased the number of days schools must be in session, making a four-day week impossible during a typical school year.
Still, as more states face an increasing number of teacher vacancies, and with fewer people enrolling in teacher training, schools are going to have to get creative, Browne of Banner County said.
“I think we have to embrace some of the tools and technology that are available to us, and kind of rethink what a typical school week is,” Browne said. “Whether that’s a 4-day, 5-day, hybrid. I think there are going to be a lot of changes in the whole education universe moving forward.”
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