Nebraska schools are going to a four-day week. Teachers are pumped. Research is spotty.

Feb. 16, 2023, 4:06 p.m. ·

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An exterior photo of Weeping Water Public Schools during a recent school day. The school’s 299 students attend classes in this building. This year, they switched to a four-day week after the school struggled to attract and retain teachers. “Smaller schools, we don’t have the financial resources to throw money at people to stay,” said Superintendent Kevin Reiman. “I just can’t compete with those types of things.” Photo by Abiola Kosoko for the Flatwater Free Press

WEEPING WATER – Superintendent Kevin Reiman had a problem. He couldn’t find new teachers.

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 voted, unanimously: Yes.

This fall, Weeping Water became at least the sixth Nebraska school district to adopt a four-day week. It’s a move that thrilled the school’s teachers, burnt out after teaching through a pandemic. And it’s worked better than expected for many parents.

But the change also raises questions about whether a four-day week is best for students. The limited research is sometimes worrisome. One study suggested that students on a four-day week fall behind learning math. Another found that 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, 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 small Nebraska school districts are mulling a four-day week to lure them.

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Math teacher David Kay works through an algebra equation with a student in Weeping Water. The school district is one of at least six in Nebraska that have made the switch to a four-day school week. It’s working, say teachers and parents, though some research suggests that it may at least slightly harm student achievement. Photo by Abiola Kosoko for the Flatwater Free Press

Larger school districts use hiring bonuses and retention stipends to attract and keep staff. But that’s not 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.”

Conestoga Public Schools, Weeping Water’s neighbor to the east, has been on a four-day schedule since 2006. That 700-student district located near Omaha made the switch while trying to dig 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 love it, said Eric Dennis, Conestoga elementary school principal.

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, up from 250 schools in 1999.

The current number is likely higher, Morton said. The schedule is largely used in western states and 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.

Nebraska schools can do this because the state measures the school year in hours: 1,032 for elementary, 1,080 for high school.

“It’s a local control decision,” said David Jespersen, Nebraska Department of Education spokesperson. “We really leave it up to the school districts…as long as they can show us the 1,032 and the 1,080.”

The four-day schedule looks different in every school district: In Weeping Water, teachers work every other Monday on professional development and classroom planning.

Banner County has turned Fridays into “optional enrichment.” Students can attend different activities like chess club, sports or driver’s ed. More than half of Banner’s 145 students attend each Friday, said superintendent Evelyn Browne.

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.

Childcare tends to be the biggest question, 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.

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The town of Weeping Water welcomes you with memories of state championship wins and losses. The school, with 299 total students in kindergarten through 12th grade, is, like many small school districts, struggling to recruit teachers. School leaders proposed the switch to a four-day week in large part to lure and keep teachers. Photo by Abiola Kosoko for the Flatwater Free Press

Blake Henderson, a Weeping Water junior, now splits her Mondays between babysitting and college-level courses.

Mondays are “doctor days,” her mother Anne said, when the family schedules appointments without worrying about school.

At first, Anne Henderson worried the four-day week would interrupt her work-from-home schedule. But the family has fallen into a routine. Her two younger children do their chores and homework while she works.

At school, it seems like teachers feel “lighter,” Henderson said. Bristol Wenzl, Weeping Water’s elementary principal, agreed.

“When [the superintendent] sent out the email, you could just see the morale lift instantly last spring,” Wenzl said.

Before, Tracy Weber, a Weeping Water English teacher, would spend each Sunday afternoon prepping for the week. This year, she grades and plans on Mondays.

“I’m just happier as a teacher, because I have more time for my family,” 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 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, this year, the state faced 769 unfilled teacher positions – meaning the job was either vacant or filled by someone unqualified. Some 208 positions were simply vacant, more than triple last year’s number.

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. Zero applicants.

It’s not unheard of for teachers to get job offers on the spot.

“They’re just getting gobbled up,” said Dennis, Conestoga’s elementary principal.

But Conestoga so far hasn’t felt the brunt of teacher departures and vacancies. Why? The four-day week, Dennis said.

Four-day school weeks have a sky-high approval rate, Morton said. Nationally, 85% of parents and 95% of students said they would choose a four-day week, said a 2021 RAND survey.

But the shortened schedule has drawbacks, Morton said.

One 2021 study of Oregon students found that a four-day week cut one-sixth of the gains a fifth grader normally makes in math, equal to about five weeks of school

Schools on a four-day week see a small, negative effect on academic achievement, according to a 2022 six-state analysis of 12,000 students’ test scores.

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.

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 pace the day with “brain breaks.”

High schoolers have told teachers if they miss a school day, they feel more behind than before. The district sometimes holds “Monday school” to help kids catch up.

Weber said her English classes are about a month behind compared to years before. She’s hopeful they’ll adjust over the next few years.

In Conestoga, test scores dipped for two years returning to normal, Dennis said.

“Education-wise, we’re not missing anything,” he argued. “If I ever see that happening…I’ll start screaming we need to go back to a five-day week.”

Earlier this year, Superintendent Jon Rother surveyed the Johnson County Central Schools community about a four-day week. 82% of staff and 72% of community members supported it.

Like Weeping Water, Rother considered 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.

“How do you justify going to a four-day week and saying, ‘Hey kid, you’re on your own that day’?” Rother said.

Some states have started to push back on the four-day switch. New Mexico lawmakers paused the move, citing concerns that fewer school days may hurt academic achievement. Oklahoma lawmakers increased the number of days schools must be in session, making a four-day week impossible.

Still, as more states face more teacher vacancies, schools are going to have to get creative, said Banner County’s Browne.

“I think we have to…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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