Governor Newsom has discussed staggered or multi-track calendars as an option for going back to school in fall 2020. A review of research on multi-track calendars shows that over time there are slight negative effects on learning, but this research was done during a period where the alternative was a traditional calendar. In the current situation, which would otherwise have students staying home entirely, a staggered calendar would have clear learning benefits and would help both parents and teachers get back to work. There is, however, no evidence that multi-track calendars reduce crowding enough to control COVID-19 transmission. Schools will need to look at evidence from other countries that are trying this approach and, if it is indeed implemented, would need to partner with local communities, counties, and the state to test aggressively for the virus.
At a news conference on April 14, 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom discussed ways students could avoid crowding and maintain social distance when schools reopen. One option was to use staggered school calendars so that not all students would be in the school building on the same day. Other states are considering staggered calendars for the same reason.
Although the idea sounds plausible, there is currently no evidence that staggered school calendars can reduce crowding enough to control infection rates. Even the broader question of how much school closures and openings affect the spread of COVID-19 is not yet settled.
Evidence may soon emerge from Hong Kong, Japan, Germany, Denmark, and Australia, which recently reopened some schools on a staggered schedule. But those countries combined staggered calendars with other policies. If infection rates rise or fall, it will be hard to know how much school calendars deserve the credit or blame.
There is research showing that staggered, or “multi-track,” school schedules can have small negative effects on student test scores and on parents’ and teachers’ ability to work. But those studies were all carried out at a time when the alternative was running schools on a traditional schedule. If the alternative is to keep children home, where they are now, any schedule that lets us open schools would have positive effects on children’s learning and on parents’ and teachers’ ability to work. But it is not clear whether any school schedule is safe until the incidence of COVID-19 has decreased and students can be regularly tested.