Had it gone another way, children in Bellingham would be in school year round. June, July, August. Each month would be tacked onto the school calendar.

If he could have made the decision alone, that’s what the district’s superintendent, Greg Baker, would have done. But when Baker floated the concept three years ago, he didn’t get enough community support. So he dropped it.

With Washington students out of school since mid-March, some say it’s time to consider a move to year-round schooling, even if it comes with added costs. Such an extended period away from classroom learning is raising the specter that all students — but especially those who benefit from more support like children in special education and low-income students — will face an unprecedented loss of knowledge.

Stretching the school calendar offers a long-term solution, some say, and some states are considering a move in that direction: Michigan’s governor is allowing schools to restart before Labor Day and adopt a yearlong calendar. Texas’ education department is encouraging districts to extend the school year. Washington’s schools chief began advocating for a longer year before the coronavirus outbreak.

“We just have this whole structure built around the current model and to disrupt that model is just so hard to do,” Baker said. “A pandemic could be a game changer that creates the opportunity for a new system.”

Harsh realities

The nine-month school calendar rules the cadence of American life. Busy autumns defined by a return to school and the sports season. A race at work and school until the intense relief of holiday breaks. Leisurely summer days.

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This ebb and flow became enshrined in most school systems by the early 1900s. The school calendar is thought to have roots in the planting seasons that defined the country’s largely agrarian culture. But that explanation leaves out a more complex story about budgetary and cultural concerns that echo current debates. Worries year-round school will cost too much. Concerns about hot school buildings. Protectiveness over family vacations. Labor contracts.

Along with tradition comes harsh realities. For many parents, summer equates to struggling to pay for child care. For children, days without guaranteed hot meals. Or hours spent unoccupied, without the luxuries of camp or academic programs.

Roughly 4.1% of American schools operate year-round, according to the most recent national data. Many operate with several breaks, usually weeks at a time, sprinkled throughout the year.Supporters point to some data suggesting it prevents the fade of knowledge that happens during summers away from school, though in general, data on year-round schooling is limited. Some studies hint that students from low-income homes — among those most at risk of losing out during COVID-19 closures — stand to benefit more than other children.

“Who knows at the end of the line what type of gaps will be created because of this mandated or mandatory shutdown,” said David Hornak, executive director of the National Association for Year-Round Education and superintendent of Holt Public Schools in Michigan. “I suspect that the balanced calendar could bring some relief to those learning gaps.”

It’s not that simple, some say.

Local teachers unions negotiate school calendars, so any change would need their support. The state’s teachers union hasn’t taken a position on year-round schooling, said Communications Director Linda Mullen. But practically, she said, a big change won’t happen soon.

While a switch might make sense for some districts, it doesn’t get at the totality of systemic inequities facing children of color, those from low-income homes and children with disabilities.

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“I don’t think that, given the situation we’re in with COVID-19, that simply saying going year-round is going to eliminate the issues we’re facing,” said Jon Pedersen, dean of the College of Education at the University of South Carolina. “The issue is: how do you bring all these kids back to school in the first place?”

Why summer break?

Here’s the story you’ve heard. School runs Labor Day through Memorial Day, or a little longer, because back in the day, families needed their children’s help on the farm.

That’s only partially true.

Pedersen, who has written about the history of the school calendar, wrote about how before 1900, districts organized calendars “around the needs of the community.”

In some regions that ran on agriculture, school was open in two sessions: after the fall harvest season until a break for spring planting season, and then again during the summer months. The school year was shorter in many such places. In some urban areas, school was nearly all year round.

A summer break was common. Eventually, two-week breaks were extended to four, and by the end of the 19th century, to two months. Families wanted to vacation, students needed a break, hot schoolhouses weren’t safe, budgets were tight. Teachers needed time for professional development.

Between the 1970s and 1990s, a handful of districts ran year-round to deal with population booms. Students went to school in shifts. One of the most popular year-round models operates in quarters, with nine weeks on and three weeks off.

These models never took off. But some want to revive the concept.

Summers have always challenged Kathy Troyer and her two young children. Troyer, a single parent in Mill Creek, can’t take off time from work when school lets out.

She spends all spring saving her paychecks to pay for camps for her daughter, a kindergartner, and her son, a fifth grader on the autism spectrum. She said she spends the fall paying back what she can’t pay up front.

She sees other benefits. Her son has trouble with transitions, she said. He’d benefit from a more consistent school schedule. “For me, there’s no downside.”

Sara Vickers, a special education teacher for 3- to 5-year-olds in the Kent school district, said year-round schooling would help guarantee her students’ access to services, such as specialists who help with fine motor and cognitive skills.

“I’ve noticed sometimes kids lose those skills over the summertime,” she said.

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Why try now?

The idea of shifting to a yearlong calendar isn’t unprecedented in Washington. The state’s Education Department planned to pilot such a program but Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed $100,000 in funding for the project in the state’s most recent budget. And other alternatives exist here: A handful of small districts have four-day weeks, but the days are longer than typical schools.

State schools chief Chris Reykdal has advocated for a longer school day — and year — since at least 2017. His idea: add 20 or 30 days to the calendar as a way to close equity gaps, improve student achievement and add time for language instruction.

That idea is off the table for now, he said. The state is projected to face a massive revenue shortfall, and adding days to the calendar would ring up big bills for teacher salaries, transportation and student meals.

“I don’t think the budget will really facilitate that,” Reykdal said. “I do think though, even before COVID, we should have been discussing it.”

What should receive serious consideration, he said: spreading out school days evenly across the calendar.

Such a move could help children catch up over the long term by tamping down the loss that comes with COVID-19 closures and summer breaks. It might also make practical sense: Schools may reopen with modifications, such as limiting class sizes to allow for social distancing. Year-round schooling could help with this transition.

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But it would need to be statewide or regionwide, experts say. The biggest reason year-round schooling fails to take hold is because neighboring districts don’t do it. Athletic schedules don’t match up. Teachers who live in one district but work in another struggle to mesh their schedules. And changing calendars is politically dicey: when Seattle school leaders announced plans to start before Labor Day next school year, they faced a firestorm of criticism.

The unpredictability of the coronavirus’ trajectory makes conversations more complicated — even for districts that believed they were ready to switch to year-round schooling.

Melody Hackney, superintendent of Hopewell City Public Schools in Virginia, intended to transition her 4,000-student district to a year-round calendar on July 27. If it happens, Hopewell will become the first district in Virginia to make the switch.

On a yearlong schedule, students would attend school for nine weeks and have three-week “intersessions” — time to take off or use to enroll in free activities run by the district, like job shadowing or music camp.

None of that is possible if school isn’t allowed to happen in person.