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Is it time to reconsider school summer breaks?

Is it time to reconsider the summer school break?

We realize most people will answer “no” and defend the break as necessary for students, teachers and school facilities to get a much-needed reprieve. We wouldn’t disagree with them, either.

But it may be time to re-examine the summer break and its impact on low-income students. The “summer slide” is a real thing. Students can lose math and reading skills during the summer break if they’re not engaged in some sort of learning program or don’t have learning opportunities at home.

The slide hits low-income students hardest. Losing two months of reading and math skills can put them years behind by the time they reach junior high.

The summer slide isn’t the only problem. Parents, especially those struggling financially, find it difficult to afford any sort of child care during the summer months. If they’re lucky, they have a family member who can watch the children or maybe an older child who can babysit. But some are forced to leave children at home alone so they can go to work. Parking them in front of the TV may be the only childcare option they have.

There’s also the cost savings of not operating school buildings at full capacity during the summer months. If school districts had to keep those facilities open throughout the summer, their operational expenses would increase by 20 percent. That would either require a significant increase in state funding or a bigger burden on local taxpayers. Neither is likely to be a popular option.

There’s also the argument that children need time to play, and summer offers that. Teens also need time to work and develop the kind of responsibility that comes with a first job, and summer gives them time for that. We agree. But what’s best for middle- and upper-class students may be hurting lower-income students. If their “play” time consists of sitting home alone all day, we doubt that’s beneficial.

We certainly don’t have the answers, but we think it’s time to examine what is obviously an issue. Maybe the current school calendar is the best compromise, but maybe it’s not. Maybe public schools could remain partially open during the summer for voluntary instruction time. While few might take advantage of this, some likely would. It would provide a safe learning environment for students who either need the extra help or for students who would otherwise be home alone. Sure, it would be a logistical nightmare for schools, and it would be expensive for districts (not as much as full-time school during the summer). But it might be worth exploring.

At the very least, we should examine this notion that a summer break is best for everyone. Though the modern school calendar is thought to have agrarian roots, that’s probably untrue. In reality, if you needed school-age children to work on the farm, you probably needed them in the spring/early summer during planting season and again during the fall harvest.

More than likely, the summer break we know today came about due to comfort reasons and as a compromise between urban schools and rural schools. In the days before air conditioning, city schools were sweaty hot boxes in the summer and families often took a vacation to find cooler weather.  So it made sense to take a school break during those months. When education reformers began pushing for uniformity among school calendars in urban and rural areas, they settled on the summer break that urban schools were accustomed to, according to PBS.org.

And the schedule hasn’t changed much in the decades since. And maybe it shouldn’t. But we should at least look at it closely to make sure that’s the case.