Small, year-over-year changes in academic scheduling are attributed chiefly to holiday-based movement, as many schools focus on the transition to virtual learning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
HENDERSONVILLE, Tennessee—Collecting academic calendars for public school districts and colleges/universities has proven more challenging in 2020 than in any year before. After waves of early dismissals and virtual graduations to end the 2019-20 academic year, the anxiety over school calendar adjustments grew over the course of a summer in which most parents (and students) were forced to stay inside.
Data from STR’s School Break Report shows that academic calendars for the upcoming school year remain mostly unchanged in the wake of COVID-19 lockdown. Instead, shifts involve the migration from in-person learning to a virtual (online) connection that many have become accustomed to over the past six months. (STR is the parent company of Hotel News Now.)
Certainly, there are small movements in the percentage of students on break (“out of session”) on matching days year over year. For starters, the sample of school districts and colleges captured each year is never exactly the same, as STR continues to grow U.S. calendar coverage, and due to the inevitability that some districts or colleges will be replaced by others based on availability during the annual collection sprints. More importantly, these types of shifts every year are mostly a function of moving holidays, federal or otherwise.
School districts are more likely than colleges and universities to shift spring-break periods in accordance with the timing of the Easter holiday—particularly districts located in “Bible Belt” states. In years when Easter swings by a month or more, this can result in dramatic changes in spring travel availability for millions of younger students and their families.
This upcoming spring brings a more muted shift as Easter Sunday only moves forward by one week (from 12 April 2020 to 4 April 2021). Keep in mind, though, that even this seemingly modest shift will result in an extra 8.2 million students being on break over the weekend of 3 April 2021, compared to the previous year. Conversely, there will be 6.7 million fewer students on break the following weekend (10-11 April 2021) compared to the matching weekend in April 2020.
The shifts in college and university calendars look similar, albeit with a more muted shift in spring breaks attributed to Easter. In general, a smaller proportion of colleges use Easter as an anchor for spring break scheduling, compared to public school districts.
In an effort by college administrators to reduce the “back-and-forth” movement of their students between campus and hometowns (a preventative measure to avoid a COVID-19 outbreak on campus), more schools are skipping fall break this year, as shown on the leftmost panel in the graphic below:
A reduction of the fall-break peak (from 20% to 10% of students on break) represents a drop of roughly 900,000 post-secondary students. It’s not completely trivial, but it’s not widely impactful either.
Later, the gap between Thanksgiving and Christmas reveals something that we’ve never quite seen before. Approximately 6% of college and university students will not be returning to class or exams (whether in-person or virtual) following the Thanksgiving holiday. These schools are launching straight into their winter break between the two semesters by holding exams before Thanksgiving. In years past, this would have been considered uncommon at best, but much like with the cancellation of fall break, the idea is that this will head off any outbreaks on campus caused by students returning after intermingling with friends back home over a break.
As of the final review of these academic calendars in August, an additional 90 schools (about 350,000 students) were not planning to be on break or back on campus after Thanksgiving, but rather transitioning to a period of virtual learning to finish out the Fall 2020 semester. Since our calendar collection and review period for this data, it’s likely that more schools (both K-12 and post-secondary) have transitioned to a virtual online or hybrid education model. STR data confirms that the shifts in academic schedules (whether in-person or virtual) are not much more dramatic than in most years, with shifts due to changes in the holiday calendar.
Brannan Doyle is a research analyst with STR’s Market Insights division.
This article represents an interpretation of data collected by STR, parent company of HNN. Please feel free to comment or contact an editor with any questions or concerns.