When San Diego schools return to in-person learning, they need to extend the school year from 180 days to 200 days to counter the ill effects of learning losses due to school shutdowns, isolation, and distance learning.
This additional time of instruction in front of a credentialed teacher will give students the extra lessons they need to catch up, and could even help close the achievement gap that has been made larger due to distance learning and the shuttering of schools.
San Diego County’s public education system was not designed to deal with extended school shutdowns like those imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though local educators worked hard to design and implement a distance-learning model, these efforts have not provided the quality of education that is delivered in the classroom, especially when it comes to our underserved student population.
The shift to remote learning in schools has disproportionally set back students of color, and the longer schools remain closed to in-person instruction, the wider the achievement gap will become, putting our underserved population of students at an even greater disadvantage when it comes to competing for jobs in a global economy.
Having an extended school year is not a new concept. Many countries have much longer school years than we do. In most of Australia, the primary and secondary school year lasts about 200 days. In Japan, the minimum number of school days in a year is 210. And in China, the average length of the secondary school year is 245 days.
When you factor in student absences, children in the United States receive far less than 180 days of instructional time. At-risk students have historically been marginalized by the public education system, and without providing them the additional instruction time they need to be successful, we are setting them up for failure—because they will not be able to compete for jobs in a global market with students who spend much more time in the classroom.
High school graduates are now competing for jobs with graduates from other countries, and our students are being surpassed by their counterparts in most developed countries in math and science. Therefore, it is crucial that we address the learning losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic and extend the school year when we return to in-school instruction. Our students deserve it.
In addition to competing for jobs, students who do not do well academically usually have a harder time getting into college because they are not prepared. And students who are not prepared are also much less likely to succeed in college. Students who do not attend college or who drop out are predominantly persons from low-income families who attended ineffective elementary and secondary schools.
It is quite clear that improving access and success in college requires a continued push to improve the education students receive in their elementary and secondary schooling. College can help break the economic gap between the haves and have-nots. On average, college graduates earn $1 million more over their lifetime.
It is also abundantly clear that distance learning has not produced equal results, and our low-income and at-risk students deserve better. Once teachers feel safe to return to in-person instruction, they should also plan on working an additional 20 days a year to make up for student learning loss and they should be compensated for those days.
It is likely that the mental health fallout from the pandemic will last for years, which will have long-term implications for children. Extending the school year will give students more opportunities to interact face-to-face with a school counselor or teacher and seek additional support when needed, especially those suffering from anxiety, depression, and stress caused by remote learning and isolation.
Most educational leaders agree that schools were not prepared to deal with the impact COVID-19 had on teaching, and when the stay-at-home and social distancing mandates end, most school districts will likely retain some form of distance learning to maintain the benefits this form of education offers. However, educators will also need to address the learning losses caused by distance learning and the effect it has had on our most vulnerable students. School districts will need to make up for the loss of in-person instruction and consider all aspects and outcomes of a 200-day school model.
Make no mistake about it, our 180 day traditional model of education must be modified, and educational leaders along with our elected officials need to extend the school year by 20 days to level the playing field for all students.
Mark Powell is former vice president of the San Diego County Board of Education. He has been a teacher, vice principal and dean of students in the San Diego Unified District and is currently an adjunct professor at National University’s Sanford College.