Looking for a competitive edge to attract and retain teachers during ongoing staff shortages, the Independence school board on Tuesday agreed to study transitioning to a four-day instructional week.
The board unanimously voted to explore the idea, potentially joining a statewide trend of more Missouri districts adopting shorter school weeks. Independence Superintendent Dale Herl told the board that the district’s study would be a long process, and if approved, the change would not be implemented this upcoming school year.
“This is about attracting and retaining staff,” Herl said. “All you’ve got to do is turn on the TV. It seems like the last week to two weeks every other story, whether it’s on CNN or locally, they’re talking about teacher shortage. Or the bus driver shortage, which we’re experiencing.”
As of this upcoming school year, nearly a quarter of Missouri school districts, primarily smaller systems in rural areas, have moved to a four-day school week over the past decade, according to state education department data. Some have tacked on an extra half-hour or hour to the end of the school day, so that they continue to meet the number of instructional hours required by the state.
In Kansas last school year, 25 districts were on a four-day schedule, according to the state education department.
School districts are working to be competitive ahead of this coming school year, by offering bonuses, higher pay and incentives to attract staff. And across the country, several school districts have considered moving to four-day school weeks, hoping that the change would incentivize more employees to consider working and staying in their districts. It’s a move that several corporations also have made in recent years amid labor shortages.
Herl said that a shorter school week would offer both students and staff more flexibility. While students would only be instructed four days a week, he said it’s possible that the fifth day could occasionally be used for professional development.
He said that the biggest question he is receiving is about child care, and how working parents would manage having students home an extra day.
“That’s one of those things we’ll put a lot of thought into,” Herl said. “I think COVID changed a lot of things. More people work from home. More people have flexible work schedules.”
Like districts across the country and in the Kansas City metro, Independence has been struggling to fill vacant positions, from teachers to bus drivers, ahead of the coming school year. Without enough drivers, the district announced last week that it would reduce bus routes so that middle and high school students must live more than 1.5 miles from their schools to be eligible to ride.
Education officials have predicted record teacher shortages for this fall, following this past school year when some local districts closed schools due to severe staffing shortages amid high rates of COVID-19 cases.
To keep schools running, teachers gave up their planning periods to cover other classes that didn’t have a substitute, or they taught multiple classes at the same time. Teachers and administrators served lunch in the cafeteria and drove buses when no one else was available.
Several teachers retired or resigned over the mounting stress and heavier workload. And many have argued that years of being underpaid and underappreciated, heightened during the pandemic, continue to drive teachers to quit. Missouri ranks at the bottom of states for average teacher starting salaries, according to a report from the National Education Association.
Herl warned that exploring the idea of a four-day week will take time for such tasks as evaluating schedules and employee pay. Several school board members emphasized that employees, parents and others should have a say in the process.