Homework in August or summer in September? Why back-to-school dates vary so much across US

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This article was written by Mary Walrath-Holdridge on August 13, 2023, published by USA Today.   

It’s almost time for back to school – or is it? For some students, like those in Indiana, school has already started as of the first week in August. For others in states like New York, where class is back in session after Labor Day, students have several weeks of summer vacation left.

Depending on where you live, August may sound way too early and September might sound surprisingly late. In reality, the time to return to class for most public school students varies pretty widely between states, a practice that can be traced back to the historical needs of different regional communities and an American emphasizes on states’ rights to govern themselves.

In general terms, schools in the South and Southwest tend to adhere to the earliest start times, whereas later starts are more common in the Northwest and along the East Coast, according to 2019 research by Pew Research Center.

In an analysis of more than 13,000 public school districts, Pew found that:

  • By mid-August, nearly all public school students in the region covering Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee were back.
  • Not a single district, however, in the New England and Middle Atlantic states went back until late August.
  • Some districts that operate on so-called modified year-round calendars begin in late July.
  • Some students in New Jersey were not going back until the second week of September.

While there have been shifts in how and when school is done since the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, these findings illustrate just how wide the range can be.

How did schools originally choose start dates?

According to Julie Gorlewski, Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Teacher Education at University at Buffalo, the disharmonious nature of school schedules ties back in part to the state-level government.

“State political leaders determine features such as curricular requirements, teacher certification regulations, graduation requirements, and the number of school days in an academic year,” Gorlewski told USA TODAY. “Guidelines are further narrowed by local school districts and their governing boards, which can set calendars that fall within state regulations.”

It is a common belief that some regions starting school earlier as a relic of an agrarian calendar that once centered life around the cycle of crop growth and harvest. Theoretically, the dependence on the agricultural industry that persisted in the South after the North had begun to industrialize more heavily meant that southern children were needed on the farm during the most labor-intensive times of the season. This meant they left school earlier and went back earlier.

While this theory may be rooted in some truth, it is more likely that children would be needed on the farm in the spring during planting and the fall during harvest, not in the hot summer months. Instead, school schedules were often tailored to the specific needs of the surrounding community.

“Agrarian cycles are generally cited as the reason for summer breaks, which supposedly allowed for young people to assist with responsibilities on family farms,” said Gorlewski. “However, prior to efforts toward standardization in the late 19th century, school calendars reflected the needs of their communities. Reformers sought to create more uniformity across urban and rural regions; and this resulted in the longer summer break that persists today.”

Weather was also an element in these decisions, as temperature control during sweltering summers, especially in big cities and urban areas, was difficult to achieve before the invention and wide-spread use of air-conditioning. As such, some urban families chose to flee to the less crowded countryside in the summer, meaning kids were not around to sit in the suffocating classrooms, according to a report by PBS.

“Contemporary decisions around school calendars are also affected by national holidays, weather (for example, to avoid times when it is particularly costly to heat or cool a building), and collective bargaining agreements,” said Gorlewski.

What are some other considerations?

The needs to keep cool or help on the farm were not and still are not the only considerations in choosing back to school dates, however.

Michael Capuana, District Superintendent of Erie 1 BOCES in Buffalo, New York told USA TODAY that districts in Western New York tend to fall on the later side of things, with most starting around September 5 and 6 this year.

“It’s honestly surprising to me that the school calendar remains generally untouched. This school calendar has been in place for decades in New York,” he said. “In many ways, it seems as though the rationale boils down to ‘we’ve always done it this way,’ despite the fact that our educators and schools are serving more students, families and communities well beyond the typical boundaries of the traditional school day and year.”

Capuana said the New York State Department of Education plays a major role, with limitations on when schools can be in session. In New York, the school year can begin no earlier than September 1 and can extend no later than June 30. If public school districts want any state aid or funding, they have to adhere to these guidelines.

“There are many different factors that need to be considered when determining a school start date,” he said. “For example, New York State regulations require that districts must have a minimum of 180 days of instruction per school year… Local collective bargaining agreements are also a factor here.”

While these limitations leave little room to adjust for things like cancellations due to inclement weather, they do provide one thing: consistency. The lack of change over the years has allowed students and families to adjust to a schedule and know what to expect, said Capuana.

When keeping in mind state regulations, national holidays, tentpole events like state testing and the availability of summer activities, there are various ways different summer schedules can impact the average student.

The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Board of Education, for example, recently approved a state date of August 21 this year, a solid few weeks before starting times in New York.

“Our 2023-24 school year calendar builds on the success of our current academic calendar by continuing to provide consistency and ensure fewer student learning interruptions,” said CPS CEO Pedro Martinez in a media statement. According to the district, an earlier start offers a number of benefits to students, including aligning more closely with local colleges and universities, allowing more students to participate in summer camps, job and recreational opportunities that start earlier in the summer and giving students more time to prepare for important exams, such as the SAT.

Ultimately, the decision was never as simple as “let the kids help on the farm,” nor is the determination made based on only one or two factors today.

“In short, decisions around school calendars reflect the kind of tension between central and local governance that characterizes and sustains a democratic republic,” Gorlewski said. “Conversations around public schooling have always been contested, and will continue to require dialogue that takes into consideration the needs and desires of a range of stakeholders, including taxpayers, political leaders, community members, educators, and – most importantly – students.”