It’s no secret that rural school districts have an especially hard time finding teachers.
In the Aberdeen School District, one teacher opening has been advertised for three years without a single application coming in.
The district did fill four other teaching positions this year, but none of those new staff members have their teacher certification.
In the hopes of recruiting and retaining more qualified teachers, Aberdeen and a number of other rural districts throughout the state are adopting a four-day week for the first time this school year.
The other districts include Meadows Valley, Parma, Mountain View, New Plymouth, Fruitland and Weiser.
They bring the tally up to 81 Idaho districts and charters (out of 186) that have made the switch to a four-day school week. The number has more than doubled in the last 10 years; in the 2012-2013 school year, only 39 districts had a four-day schedule.
As that number grows, it puts pressure on five-day districts to jump on the bandwagon – or potentially lose staff members to surrounding districts that have Fridays off.
Those districts making the leap are doing so in spite of drawbacks to students, like longer days that come with increased fatigue, reduced access to free meals and time with a teacher, and working parents who must find daycare.
Meadows Valley was a holdout – but relented this year
For the past eight years, Meadows Valley School District went back and forth about whether to adopt a four-day week.
“We just never could bite the bullet on it,” said Mike Howard, the Meadows Valley superintendent. “I’m an old guy and it was just hard to buy into a shorter work week for the kids.”
But buy in he did – after repeated surveys showed that 70-80% of teachers, parents, and students were in favor of the change.
Plus, Meadows Valley was the only district in its Long Pin 1A athletic conference (which includes districts like Garden Valley, Horseshoe Bend, and Cascade) that was still on five-day weeks. And when Howard talked to his peers, they said they wouldn’t go back to a five-day week for anything.
On top of that, some of Howard’s teachers came from four-day districts, and said they’d resign if they had to go back to a five-day week.
“That’s a pretty big statement,” he said.
But he gets it. A few teachers in his district have new babies, so the Fridays off give them time to be moms and dads.
The change benefits students, too: it better prepares students for college (because classes are not held every day) and for the changing work landscape (more jobs are becoming remote or hybrid). And students can arrange to come in on Fridays if they fall behind.
Parents can also schedule appointments for Fridays or take advantage of the three-day weekends and do some traveling.
“Right now I don’t feel bad about it at all,” Howard said of the four-week schedule that he avoided for so long.
Of course, not everyone in the community is a fan. Some have expressed vocal opposition to the new schedule, and Howard acknowledged that this year is trial and error. He’ll be paying close attention to test scores to see how or whether they are impacted by the switch.
Applicants said ‘never mind’ to Aberdeen jobs when it was a five-day district
Two of Aberdeen’s new teachers wouldn’t have applied this year if the district wasn’t making the switch to four-day weeks, superintendent Jane Ward said. And in past years, applicants dropped out after realizing they’d be on a five-week schedule.
Like Meadows Valley, Aberdeen was one of the last holdouts in its area and is finally joining the crowd this year.
However, the district isn’t switching over to a four-day week until after this fall’s harvest break. By starting out with five-day weeks, it’s easier for the district to meet state hour requirements.
Once the four-day schedule begins, teachers will come in one Friday a month for professional development, but how they use the other three Fridays is up to them. Most four-day districts seem to operate similarly, with one teacher work day or professional development day a month.
Benefits of a four-day week outweighed the costs in Weiser
The Weiser School District also felt the pull to join surrounding districts by moving to a four-day week.
“We didn’t want to lose any edge we had in recruitment or retention of staff,” said Wade Wilson, the Weiser superintendent.
Plus, that extra day provides more family time for parents and students.
“Those two things considered, our board felt like it was the right thing for our community,” Wilson said.
But they had plenty of concerns about a four-day schedule:
Fatigue could set in on the longer days that are necessary in a four-day week (Weiser extended its school days by about an hour). Would four long days have the same educational value as five short days?
What about those students who rely on school meals and high-needs students being away from school one extra day?
If students leave school early for sporting events, they’d miss more of the school day than usual. Would that have a major impact on their learning?
Longer school days mean practices are later as well. What impact would that have on students who have less time after practice to eat dinner, do homework, and relax?
Ultimately, though, the board felt the benefits of a four-day week outweighed the costs.
Wilson said they’re just starting their fourth week of a four-day schedule, and he’s just started to hear some feedback. Some teachers have said the time to do work on Fridays is the first time they’ve been able to do lesson plans and grading “without feeling barely above water.”
He’s also heard some concerns about the change, but said he’s optimistic about four-day weeks and will continue to monitor their impact on students.
Parma is still offering breakfast, lunch, and bussing on Fridays
Stoney Winston, superintendent for Parma School District, was surprised by his community’s overwhelming support for a four-day week; 70% of the community were in favor of the change.
He thought parents wouldn’t want to because of the burden it would place on them to provide childcare on Fridays. But many parents had enrolled their kids in four-day districts previously and said it was too hard to go back to five days.
So Parma is making the leap this year, but is still providing Friday meals and support to students who need them. One Friday a month, students can come in and meet with their teachers in the morning or get caught up when they fall behind. On the other three Fridays, the district runs its after-school program from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
So far, the system seems to be working.
“The staff is loving it,” Winston said. “Teachers can get lesson plans done and still have two days of a weekend.”
Though teachers in four-day districts are off the clock on most Fridays, it seems many still use the time to lesson plan and grade.
But not Heather Miller, an English teacher at Snake River Junior High (which has been on a four-day schedule for years). For her, those Fridays are time to spend with family and check items off the to-do list.
‘The way my life is currently, I don’t think I could go back to five days.’
This is Miller’s third year teaching at Snake River; prior to that, she spent 11 years teaching in the Pocatello-Chubbuck School District, which has a five-day week.
At first, she was worried about whether she could adequately cover the curriculum with one less day. But since the days are a bit longer, she said it’s been no problem.
And since student-athletes usually have their events on Fridays, they rarely have to miss class for a game, meet, or match. When they do come back to school on Mondays, Miller said they’re more rested and ready to go.
She also appreciates that professional development can be scheduled for Fridays and she doesn’t have to get a sub or wait for holiday breaks to make appointments.
“If there’s an emergency, you can just get it taken care of and not worry about what’s happening at work, because work can wait for you,” she said.
Last Friday, Miller squeezed in a full slate of errands: she got a haircut; took her son to football tryouts; took her cat to the vet; and gleaned pears from her brother’s tree.
Suffice it to say she makes use of that extra free day each week.
Miller is also a parent of two students who attend schools in the Blackfoot School District, which went to a four-day schedule in 2021. That means they get to use Fridays for family time or simply just playing outside.
Miller said the four-day week helps her kids recharge after a long week and helps her curb burnout.
“I can now do things I want to do and not feel like my life is being consumed by teaching and have a better balance,” she said. “The way my life is currently, I don’t think I could go back to five days.”
Large districts are sticking with five-day school weeks
As more small districts opt for four-day school weeks, large districts are maintaining the status quo of five-day weeks.
Students in Idaho’s largest districts — Boise, West Ada, Nampa, Bonneville Joint, Pocatello/Chubbuck, Idaho Falls, Coeur d’Alene, Vallivue, and Twin Falls — are expected to be in class on Fridays.
That’s true even for districts experiencing staffing shortages, like Twin Falls.
Eva Craner, the spokesperson for the Twin Falls School District, said it’s in the best interest of families and students to keep Fridays on the schedule. One reason is because of childcare needs; some families might not be able to arrange supervision for their children on that fifth day. And many children in the district eat breakfast and lunch at school; four-day weeks could mean one more day without access to food or adult supervision.
“Our schools are a safe, warm, welcoming place that really take care of the whole child,” Craner said.
Craner acknowledged that the four-day week trend has “really taken hold in Eastern Idaho” and said Twin Falls will continue to evaluate its schedule, but plans to stick with a five-day week for now.
This story was first published at idahoednews.org. Idaho Education News data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report.