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Geoff Johnson: Four-day school week comes down to child care

Any move to a four-day school week has to consider child care’s role in the economy
The move from a five-day school week to a four-day week with extended days has been one of the most studied organizational shifts affecting both district ­operations and classroom instruction, writes Geoff Johnson. Darryl Dyck, THE CANADIAN PRESS

In 1926, Henry Ford, the man at the helm of the Ford Motor Company, shut down his seven-day automotive factories for two days a week — the foundation of the five-day work week in North America.

Now, 97 years later, the five-day 40-hour work week is again being re-examined by many businesses in the name of employee wellness and overall productivity.

So it has taken a while, but why this change in ­thinking now?

On Jan. 25, 2020, the first COVID-19 case in Canada was reported, eventually forcing offices and myriad workplaces across the country to re-examine how, when and where we work.

Momentum for the idea of a four-day work week began building soon after.

It’s an idea that is taking hold: “The recognized leader of this idea is 4-Day Week Global, a New Zealand ­non-profit created in 2019 to help companies ­transition from a traditional five-day week,” says a recent ­Vancouver Sun story by Lori Culbert.

Governments in countries such as Belgium and ­Iceland have passed legislation to support a shortened work week. Significant four-day-week trials have been pursued elsewhere, including in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Spain and Portugal.

Whether the move toward a four-day work week will spill over into the traditional five-day school week in public education remains to be seen.

The five-day child-custodial role that schools play in the economy will no doubt be a factor.

The four-day school week in B.C. has been tried, accepted for periods of time by some school districts and rejected by others for a variety of reasons — most of them related to cost savings.

The Coast Mountains School District, between Prince Rupert and Prince George, implemented a four-day week in the 2003-04 school year to reduce costs, but a subsequent board reverted to the five-day week. Again, the board was pressured by parents concerned about five-day childcare and its benefit to the local economy.

Boundary School District, centred in Grand Forks and covering an area west to the outskirts of Kelowna, switched all schools to a four-day week in the 2001-2002 school year to ensure they would stay open.

Five years after making the switch, the district conducted a review of the shorter week. It showed the board saved more than $200,000 a year.

In 2004, the Gulf Islands School District #64 created a four-day school week.

Gulf Islands is in a unique situation because, as much as anything, the switch related to travel time to Salt Spring Island from outer islands for secondary school students.

Students and teachers spend more time in the ­classroom during each of the four days, so there is the same amount of instructional time as in a five-day week.

A recent opinion survey found parents were strongly supportive of the four-day school week, according to Superintendent Scott Benwell.

The four-day-school-week notion has had a bumpier ride in Ontario.

The Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est, a French Catholic school board, had considered a pilot program for a shorter school week at two of its ­elementary schools.

The plan was for a school year that began a week earlier than usual and ended three days later for ­students on the four-day-week schedule.

School days would have been extended by 38 minutes per day in order to offer the same number of teaching hours during the school year.

In a statement following the board’s original announcement in March, a spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the ministry’s position was that students should be in school five days a week, both for their learning and their mental health.

The board now says it opted not to move to the ­proposed four-day schedule this fall after Ontario’s Education Ministry refused to approve the plan.

In the U.S., more than 1,600 school districts have adopted the four-day model as of 2019-20.

The move from a five-day school week to a four-day week with extended days has been one of the most ­studied organizational shifts affecting both district operations and classroom instruction.

A recent article in a publication by the Association of American Educators quoted teachers as saying: ­“Cramming grading and lesson planning into four days can be rough, but if you are good at time management it is totally doable.”

Another teacher offered the opinion that “the ­three-day gap between Thursday and Monday feels LONG when I want my high schoolers to retain ­information. And it’s frustrating when a lesson needs just 10-15 extra minutes, but it’s Thursday and you can’t finish it until Monday.”

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Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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