Proposing a New School Calendar for the Age of COVID

The coronavirus thrives in the colder months. Why not keep kids home then, and send them to school in the summer?

A little boy wearing a mask stares into glowing Christmas lights against a black background.
Alex Cámara / NurPhoto / Getty

There is a noise that, these past two years, has acquired the power to turn my blood to ice: my child’s sneeze, followed by a wet sniffle.

Is it a cold? Will his nose be so drippy that it saturates the mask that he’s expected to wear in school all day? Or worse: Does he have a fever? A sore throat? Either way, he’ll need a PCR test before he can return to the classroom. How many meetings will need to be rescheduled, plans unmade, episodes of Wild Kratts endured in the days before the result arrives? And, sweet Jesus, that’s assuming it’s negative. If COVID is lurking behind that unassuming sniffle, stick a fork in me.

Since the spring of 2020, parents of young children have been on a roller-coaster ride, and not the Space Mountain kind. The rickety kind you’re not entirely sure you’ll make it off of in one piece. Now mask mandates have begun to lift, and few school districts are operating under fully remote models, but students and their families still aren’t in the clear: Many experts believe that the coronavirus will settle into an endemic seasonal pattern, like the flu, meaning that case counts could rise in colder months for years to come and the winter could continue to be an attendance train wreck for schools. Particularly for the many American families in which both parents are employed, this would be a nightmare scenario.

I don’t pretend to have a solution, but I do have one modest suggestion to improve the situation: Send kids to school all summer and shift their long break to the winter. Though the months of March through November won’t proceed COVID-free, rejiggering the calendar would open up three seasons for relatively dependable schooling.

These past two years, by contrast, have offered anything but. Last fall, following a seemingly endless summer break—when COVID rates, despite the Delta surge, were lower than they’d soon be—children resumed school just in time for the weather to turn cooler, little noses to begin to run, and an even worse wave to hit in the winter, along with seasonal spread of the flu and other viruses. On any given day during the 2020–21 school year, an average of 10 percent of American K–12 students were absent—almost double the pre-pandemic norm. As the Omicron surge was peaking, in January, New York City public-school attendance hovered around 70 percent.

Next winter, teachers may find themselves once again masked up, juggling the needs of students isolating at home with those of an IRL class, and standing at the ready to pivot to remote education on a moment’s notice. Many of them may get sick themselves, worsening an ongoing teacher shortage. Children who can’t be physically present in classrooms will experience academic setbacks—especially those from low-income families, which could widen the achievement gap.

Parents, too, will likely be overwhelmed. Private-sector employees in the United States receive an average of three to four weeks of paid leave annually, whereas even before the pandemic, their children spent roughly 83 days out of school each year between seasonal breaks, federal holidays, and closures for staff training. Virus-related disruption—not just an actual case of COVID, mind you, but exposure-related isolation, or the odd scratchy throat that can now keep a kid home—threatens to add not merely a few days, but weeks, to that total. Here’s a math problem: If Mr. and Mrs. Smith each have 16 days of paid time off, and they want to spend five of those days together as a family, and little Jimmy needs to quarantine for 10 total days on top of his 83 days of school vacation, how many therapy sessions will Mr. and Mrs. Smith need to pay for to get through all the days when they’re supposed to be in two different places at once?

Shifting vacation to the time when we expect virus-related disruption to be at its worst would mean not just fewer overall days home annually for the average child, but also fewer of the last-minute, sickness-related schedule changes that leave parents scrambling. Families that use group child-care resources during the school break might still have to deal with virus-related closures and absences, but they are in the minority: Only about a quarter of children ages 4 to 14 attend any day camps (or day care) at all in the course of a typical pre-COVID summer vacation; the majority are cared for by a parent or other relative, or left home alone. Still, these arrangements are usually precarious, in their own ways, and every extra day that parents are forced to balance work with child-care obligations compounds their stress and exhaustion.

Whatever children may try to tell you, vacation in summer is not a law of nature. John Rury, a co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of the History of Education and a professor emeritus at the University of Kansas, told me that up until the mid-19th century, school was held year-round in America’s urban districts. In rural areas, the norm was to provide a summer term and a winter term, and children were off in the spring and fall when their help was needed with planting and harvest.

Sometime after the Civil War, city schools began to give children a break during the summer months. (Contrary to popular opinion, summer break did not originate as a concession to the needs of a farm.) The medical beliefs of the time associated hot weather with the spreading of disease, and it was thought that children should escape the warm, close confines of a classroom in favor of fresh outdoor air. Later in the 19th century, Rury said, that developed into the idea “that schoolwork was a taxation on the mind and spirit, and that kids needed a break.” Wealthy families were eager to leave the heat of the city for cooler climes too, and as the population of cities was expanding rapidly, a gap in instruction was needed to expand and refurbish buildings.

But times have changed. We now know that most viruses thrive in the cold, dry winter air, not in the heat of summer. Migration patterns have shifted the population of the United States toward the South and West, where summers are usually scorching and winters are arguably more comfortable for outdoor recreation.

The main thing the current calendar has going for it, if we’re really honest with ourselves, is the mythology of summer: mental images of kids flying around town on their banana-seat bicycles and manning lemonade stands, the stuff of The Sandlot and Bruce Springsteen songs. Rury invoked the sociological phenomenon of “path dependence”: Once a pattern develops, norms and institutions grow around it and lock it into place. “Summer vacation has become a cultural pattern, and those things are very resistant to change,” he said.

But most families do not relocate to the seaside for the summer, like something out of an Edith Wharton novel. Parents continue working, and kids, more often than they play stickball or build sandcastles, are plastered to the couch with an iPad. The average tween spends almost five hours a day being amused by a screen—that’s not even counting educational uses—and fewer teens have a driver’s license now than ever before. If school all summer strikes you as sad, what’s even sadder is children whiling away July playing Fortnite.

For many kids willing to put down their devices, winter break would be no consolation prize. Imagine all the sledding races, the snowball fights, the hot chocolate, the hygge. Summer jobs scooping ice cream would give way to winter jobs handing out skates at the local ice rink. Sleepaway camps could trade canoeing and hiking for pond hockey and cross-country skiing.

The calendar change doesn’t need to be permanent, but who’s to say it couldn’t be? Even once the coronavirus has faded from the center of public attention, we might find that we prefer for children to dodge the usual winter cocktail of viruses. Perhaps flu transmission rates would decline with school out of session, better protecting the elderly and infants. Kids are unlikely to miss being dragged from bed before dawn for school in the darkest part of the year, and bus drivers would surely be glad to encounter fewer icy roads. There are some things—many things—we can’t change. But given an opportunity to ease families’ burdens and slow infections, it would be a shame not to try to change this one.