Ray Carter | January 28, 2021

Four-day school week survives new law

Ray Carter

Members of the State Board of Education voted Thursday to give a one-year exemption to all Oklahoma public schools from a state law that requires districts to provide at least 165 days of instruction starting next year.

The change was tied, in part, to the repercussions of prior government response to COVID-19.

Under legislation approved in 2019, school districts would have been required to meet for a minimum of 165 days each year and provide at least 1,080 hours of instruction, starting next fall.

That 2019 law was a priority of Senate Republican lawmakers, who argued the proliferation of Oklahoma school districts that provided only four-day school weeks was harming national perception of the state, including in business-recruitment efforts.

When the bill first advanced from committee in February 2019, the official Facebook page of the Oklahoma Senate Republican caucus declared, “This bill is a big part of the Senate GOP Agenda and will put the focus of education back on the success of our students by restoring 5-day school weeks for all Oklahoma schools.”

Under the provisions of that law, schools would have been exempted from the minimum-day requirement only if a district could document that a shorter school-day-calendar year had not negatively impacted student achievement as determined by state measurement of learning.

However, the suspension of state testing in schools during last spring’s COVID-19 shutdown meant that data on student learning was not available this year.

The provisions of the law were set to take effect in the 2021-2022 school year. The board vote means that mandate will now be delayed until the 2022-2023 school year.

Although they voted to provide the mass exemption for a year, members of the State Board of Education stressed their action was taken primarily because it had become impossible to implement the law as written.

Board members also stressed that four-day school weeks are not sufficient in most cases and that Oklahoma lags far behind most other states when it comes to the length of its school year.

“One hundred sixty-five is, frankly, a fairly low standard,” said board member Jennifer Monies. “When you look across the country, many other states go 180 days as their minimum.”

She added that requiring 165 days of school “is not a hard ask.”

“By anyone’s account, I think, assessing this, we need more time, more days, than fewer,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister.

The vote may have little immediate impact for many families since a significant number of major schools have yet to offer in-person instruction for five days a week in the current school year due to COVID-19. Some districts have had almost no in-person instruction for a year now and have operated almost entirely online, while others are providing in-person instruction as little as two days a week.

Because of that lack of consistent, quality instruction, experts believe many students have fallen below grade level in learning since last spring. That fact was stressed by Monies, who noted “a lot of our students” will “very likely start” the 2021-2022 school year “significantly behind.”

Monies said helping those students catch up will require districts to “really look at their calendar and say, ‘How can we find a way to make sure that students are in school in meaningful instruction for at least 165 days.’”

Hofmeister also said schools that provide shorter school weeks composed of longer days will be less likely to benefit students who have fallen behind.

“There comes a limit,” Hofmeister said, “and younger children can’t sit in a school all day long and expect to have big gains when there are big windows of time where they are out of school.”

While the waiver allows schools to meet less than five days per week, districts must still provide at least 1,080 hours of instruction, officials noted.

“Many of our neighboring states, many other states, have a minimum requirement of 180 days per school year,” said board member Brian Bobek. “So again, this somewhat low bar shouldn’t really even be a conversation in my opinion. But I would also challenge the superintendents, the school-district board members, to find a way to get to 165 or more and make a difference for the kids.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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