Few events spark as much nostalgia as summer for parents.
Heat waves notwithstanding, camps, vacations, jobs, and time in the neighborhood pool spark fond memories, which ripple into pop songs devoted to the joys of summer.
Yet for many parents from all walks of life, the summer break from school can be simultaneously painful.
That pain is why I argue in my new book, “From Reopen to Reinvent,” that it’s well past time that many more schools began offering year-round schooling. Such a move would not only help parents, but it would also reduce stress on students and burnout among teachers.
The parental pain stems from many angles.
For some, it’s the agony and pressure of planning and constant coordination.
Parents often begin planning for summer the preceding November. Camp sign-ups start as early as December, and the spots at the popular camps fill up fast.
Trying to predict in which activities children will have an interest six months from now offers its own stress, as does the sense that parents will be letting their children down if they don’t sign them up for the “right” activities, from robotics to coding, design engineering or something else.
Many feel they have to cram their children’s interests into the summer break instead of spreading them throughout the year, which pits academics, athletics, arts and other areas of passion against each other rather than modeling a balanced lifestyle.
Each week of summer is also different for many families, which makes it hard to create a rhythm. Coordinating who is caring for and chaperoning the children each week is challenging.
Spreadsheets abound as parents seek to juggle everyone’s schedules and make sure there are no unaccounted-for hours.
“Every Sunday during the summer, I have mild panic,” said one parent on my podcast titled Class Disrupted, “because I need to not only figure that information out for myself and print out maps of where the drop-off site is on this complicated campus, but now I’ve got to convey that information to three other people.”
There is also the cost of summer programs for parents.
And while academics debate whether there really is a “summer slide”—the idea that children lose their academic gains over the summer months—what’s clear is that for some families, the summer is a time of vast enrichment that other families, particularly those from low-income backgrounds or those who lack the social capital to know which opportunities to explore, don’t have access to. In some cases, children even take advanced academic classes so they can get an edge over their peers when they go back to school.
But the pain of summer doesn’t have to accompany its joys.
Many mistakenly believe that the current school calendar with its long summer break—known in education circles as the “agrarian calendar”—began to allow children to be home to help during the farming season when agriculture played a bigger role in the economy.
In fact, children in rural farming communities who were enrolled in school in the 19th century typically spent five or six months in school—two to three months in the summer and two to three months in the winter. They were home during the spring and fall for planting and harvesting.
The children enrolled in urban areas in the 19th century went to school year-round with short breaks. In 1842, Detroit schools were open roughly 260 days. New York’s were open 245 days.
School wasn’t mandatory then, so many students didn’t show—particularly in the hottest months in urban areas, given the lack of air conditioning. Many in the community were concerned that summer bred “epidemics, and [was] most fruitful of diseases in general,” and said students would be better off at home or in the countryside.
To beat the summer heat, wealthy families pulled their children out of school and traveled to the countryside or the beach where the weather was cooler. As mandatory public school expanded, legislators and labor unions pushed for less school time and a more regulated summer break.
Decades later, we now just treat this as the way school is done.
But there are public schools around the country that have been moving to year-round school, or what’s often known as a balanced calendar. According to the Congressional Research Service, in 1985 there were “410 year-round public schools, serving about 350,000 students. . . . During the 2011-2012 school year, there were 3,700 public schools” operating year-round schools serving over 2 million students.
These schools still offer breaks for students.
In one model, for example, students attend school for roughly 12 weeks followed by three weeks of vacation year-round.
In another popular model, students enroll for roughly nine weeks and have two weeks off in between—with the exception of summer, when they have roughly a month of vacation.
From Charleston, West Virginia to Holt, Michigan, many schools that offer year-round schooling report improved parent satisfaction and teacher happiness.
The reason for the “happier teachers” may be that the schedules provide more frequent breaks that help them rejuvenate. That helps teachers avoid complete exhaustion at the end of the school year.
There are of course concerns with moving to such a school calendar.
Some worry that students will lose the opportunity to enjoy enrichment experiences or hold jobs during the summer.
Rethinking schooling to create more spaces for enrichment activities at a more regular cadence or making projects a core part of schooling such that enrichment opportunities are embedded in the school experience could address the former concern.
As for working, it’s true that by holding a job students can gain key skills for the workforce, awareness of the various career paths that exist, and beneficial connections.
But fewer teenagers have been working than at any time in our nation’s history over the past decade. Roughly 20 percent of teenagers worked prior to the pandemic, compared to 40 percent in 1990, for example.
Although there are signs of a change, there are also a variety of reasons behind these statistics, including many families believe that their children are better served by loading up on impressive-sounding extracurricular activities in pursuit of college than by holding a job.
The bottom line is that far too few adolescents are taking advantage of summer to work—and schools could do a better job of integrating real-work experiences from the surrounding community into school for all students.
Another set of concerns revolve around the nostalgia for the summer break.
There are also entire industries that have sprung up around summer vacation, from camps to classes and resorts. In New England, where I live, there are towns that exist for the summertime because their economy is so dependent on the vacation and tourist activity that takes place during those months of the year.
As a result, there are vested interests in keeping summer break the way it is.
There are answers to these challenges. Among them are the reality that families would still have vacation time during the summer when they could escape for the coast and summer music festivals. Relatively few families, after all, can afford to take off the entire summer in a tourist location.
But more broadly, concerns around losing something aren’t unique to summer break. The status quo often has a large constituency behind it ready to push back on any significant change.
To create change, it’s critical to find ways to address the inevitable anxiety that people will experience around proposed changes. Switches occur only when the pain of a current situation plus the allure of the new overcomes existing habits and anxieties. This typically means no instant changes, but gradual work with communities to find ways forward.
Some schools have discovered that allowing several teachers to co-teach a larger group of students allows them to keep the school building open year-round and allows students and teachers to schedule breaks when it suits them. If a teacher is absent in this arrangement, there is no break in continuity for the students. The flexibility offers far more support for parents and reduces pressure on students as long as they make steady academic progress. And for those families for whom the traditional school calendar works, they can continue to follow it.
As society slides back into taking for granted that schools are open, it’s time to revisit one of our core assumptions: that school closes during the summer.