Teachers say Montezuma-Cortez School District's new schedule will help, but more needs to be done to address staff shortages
For students in the Montezuma-Cortez RE-1 School District, this week was the first week of classes after the winter holidays. And this semester, there’s a big change. Classes are now on a four-day week. It's a necessary move to support short-staffed and over-worked teachers. But as KSJD News reports, it's just one step in addressing the district's continuing teacher shortage.
All schools in the Montezuma-Cortez RE-1 School District move to a four-day week instead of five starting this semester. That means classes will be held on Monday through Thursday only.
The change also comes with some additional adjustments. For example, the daily bell schedule has changed, and school days end a little later than they have in the past. An extra week has also been added to the end of the year.
District administration lays out the details of the new schedule in a video posted this week.
But, changing the weekly schedule halfway through the academic year is pretty unusual. The district tried a four-day week years ago, but quickly moved back to a five-day schedule. This time, the change comes after the district experienced severe staff shortages this fall.
A combination of staff leaving the district and an inability to fill empty positions left teachers stretched too thin. One reason for that: surrounding districts, like Dolores and Mancos, were more desirable places to work.
Ed Rice is on the Montezuma-Cortez RE-1 School Board.
“Every school district around us is on this now,” he says. “I think that's just hurting us as far as recruitment of teachers and stuff. It's sort of a no brainer for a lot of teachers and stuff that they're going to take a four day week over a five day.”
According to the Colorado Department of Education, 178 districts in the state are on a four-day week schedule with most of those in rural areas like Montezuma County. The department also says that, after having a four-day school week for several years, 80 to 90 percent of community members favor continuing with the schedule.
So far, the decision in the Montezuma-Cortez district is getting positive responses. That’s including from teachers, like Matthew Keefauver who teaches math at Montezuma-Cortez Middle School
“I think it's really wise that they went to the four day week,” he says. “We at least have lost a few teachers to Mancos and Dolores because of the four day week.”
Keefauver also says the shorter week will give teachers much-needed extra time to do their work outside of the classroom.
“This gives people an opportunity to have an extra day to grade papers to do lesson plans,” he says. “To you know, just like recoup mentally and physically recoup from what can be a really exhausting week.”
He says staff shortages in the district have increased the workload for teachers significantly. That’s because, when there aren’t enough teachers to go around in the district, existing teachers are forced to cover additional classes and prepare lesson plans for substitutes.
Amanda Robinson, another teacher in the middle school, agrees.
“Teachers are covering other teachers,” she says. “And that gets exhausting because when we're covering for another class, what that means is we're taking away from our plan time.”
She hopes the four-day week will help address staff shortages by not only filling staff positions, but by attracting high-quality teachers to the district. Because, she says, that will serve the students best.
“There is a difference in the education world between a position filled and a certified teacher,” she says. “What's best for students is really great teachers.”
But Robinson also acknowledges that the change to a four-day week isn’t so simple, and might even cause some problems.
“I know that not everybody has a beautiful home or a wonderful environment to be in on Fridays,” she says. “That's a hard compromise. I think that's the one that probably keeps me up at night.”
She’s concerned that the four-day week could be problematic for families that rely on school to provide childcare or meals for their kids.
But district administration says resources will be in place to fill that gap. According to superintendent Risha VanderWey, take-home lunches for Fridays will be handed out on Thursdays to any student who needs one. And for students who need childcare, the district is partnering with local organization The Pinion Project to create a supervised space for kids on Fridays.
But some staff members also expressed a different concern with a four-day week. For those in transportation or food services, for example, there were worries that a shorter class-week would cut their pay.
But, according to VanderWey, that’s not going to happen. She says all staff will earn the same amount that they expected to make on the previous schedule.
At the end of the day, although teachers like Matthew Keefauver are optimistic about the four-day week, he says more needs to be done to attract new teachers and retain those already in the classrooms. That includes offering better pay.
“They need to really look at the salary schedule, and be really equitable,” he says. “Especially looking at the starting salaries so that young teachers who are starting out in their career aren't immediately behind in student loan payments and things like that.”
District leadership, including school board member Ed Rice, says it plans to address staff salaries, and compare them to neighboring districts, in the coming months.