School districts and universities are taking cues from the business world and instituting four-day weeks, a trend that some say could become the norm as gas prices and energy costs continue to rise.
Experimenting with four-day school weeks is becoming popular in some of the country’s most remote school districts, where buses travel hundreds of miles for student pickups, drop offs, and sporting events. Some colleges and universities have begun offering four-day weeks for employees and students, although most campuses don’t close shop on Fridays. Instead, administrators are authorizing alternative schedules as an employee-friendly policy designed to soothe the sting of increasingly costly daily commutes.
Some school systems, during the past year, have eliminated Friday from the work schedule in Minnesota, Kentucky, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah.
Bob Dolazel, superintendent of the rural White Pine School District in Nevada, said piloting the four-day week in the district’s K-12 school has saved on energy costs, but has also created more classroom time for students.
"Our motivation at the time was improving the amount of instructional time our students have," said Dolazel, schools chief since 2000. Sporting events, he said, cut down on students’ class time because some games were more than 100 miles from White Pines, meaning teams would have to leave with several hours left in the school day. With only 115 students in the school, having a couple dozen leave for an athletic event was detrimental, Dolazel said. Now, all athletic events are scheduled for Fridays and Saturdays, meaning class is not interrupted by team schedules.
With budgets in trouble in most states today, colleges and school districts see alternative scheduling as a way to save money. The White Pines School District is facing a 14 percent budget cut for the coming school year. But Dolazel said employees and students have praised the three-day weekend, even though each remaining school day had to be extended by about two hours.
"If gas prices were a dollar a gallon, they’d still want to have a four-day school week," he said. "They really enjoy it. … It has overwhelming support here."
Following the lead of its local government, Oakland University in Rochester Hills, Mich., began offering four-day weeks to its employees in July. In June, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson announced a four-day workweek for government employees, who work 10-hour days Monday-Thursday.
Ted Montgomery, a spokesman for the university, said it was deemed unfeasible to offer four-day weeks for students. Employees can choose which day they take off during the week, as long as they coordinate it with class schedules. The pilot program ends Aug. 30. Oakland officials will decide whether to extend the four-day option into the fall semester, Montgomery said.
"I don’t see why, if all the results come in and there have been no issues, that it wouldn’t be continued," said Montgomery, who participated in the four-day week pilot for three weeks and saved about $120 on gas. "I haven’t heard of any problems so far, honestly."
Oakland University officials said shortening the workweek would not just save employees money, but it would also bolster productivity, as many national studies have shown.
"The compressed work week is a win-win. The 20 percent reduction in fuel consumption is good for the environment and good for our employees on an individual level," John Beaghan, vice president for Finance and Administration, said in a statement.
Montgomery said there was an environmental component to the university’s policy. "We have a little smaller carbon footprint," he said.
Rex L. Facer, an assistant professor of public finance who has studied alternative workweeks at Brigham Young University in Utah, said school officials began exploring nontraditional work schedules when employees’ daily commutes began to have a major impact on their finances. But the numerous studies – including published work Facer has helped research – that show employee production and contentment rises with the option of a four-day week has made the decision easier on many campuses.
"The big driver is gas prices from the employee’s perspective," said Facer, a member of the Brigham Young faculty for seven years. "From the campus perspective, it’s all about energy costs … since local schools districts and higher education are huge consumers of energy."
Despite a slight drop in gas prices late this summer, Facer and school officials nationwide don’t expect the alternative schedules to disappear. Facer said it wasn’t until gas prices were considered dire that employers and schools embraced nontraditional work hours.
"It appears that $4 a gallon was a magic point," he said. "The interest really did skyrocket at that point."
Facer said his research showed that about one-third of people surveyed preferred a four-day workweek, while one-third preferred coming in on Fridays. The other one-third of those surveyed said they did not have a preference.
Conversations about instituting a four-day week at Brigham Young University are in their "formative stages," Facer said, a move that would mimic the state government’s four-day week policy. Utah reportedly became the first state government in the country to stray from the traditional five-day week early this summer.
Utah’s Rich School District switched to a four-day week for the same reasons White Pines officials had – lengthy commutes and rising energy prices. Rich County Superintendent Dale Lamborn said the policy has been popular with employees and students, but some parents have pined for the five-day week.
"Parents are concerned about after-school care on Fridays," he said, adding that the state school board is expected either to nix the program or extend it this fall.
The Rich School District saves about $1,500 a week on fuel costs for buses that pick up students more than 50 miles from their schools every morning.
Lamborn was not sure how much money the district had saved on heating and air conditioning since implementing a four-day week, but said, "It has really saved us significant money. We’ll stay on it as long as we can." He said 90 percent of students and employees approve of Monday-Thursday school weeks.
Cost cutting will be a consideration as long as gas prices hover around $4, Lamborn said, but having student athletes in class for four extended school days has been a focus of faculty and staff.
"While cost savings are a benefit, you still have to prioritize what’s best instructionally for your students," he said.