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Why Do Schools Take a Summer Vacation?

When you ask most Americans why children get a break from school in the summer you usually get one of two answers. 

Warren Sullivan of Hermitage provided the most popular answer while visiting Pittsburgh last month: “I think it was agriculture wasn’t it? I mean, it’s probably the season … a few generations ago anyway.”

There is a kernel of truth to that idea, but it’s not exactly right. In rural areas of the country, the first schools took breaks in the spring for planting and in the fall for the harvest, but the kids found themselves in front of their schoolmarm all summer long when the plants were maturing. 

City kids were more likely to be out of school in the summer months, according to Heinz History Center Curator of History Leslie Przblek. But even there it was unusual.

“You had student in effect going to school year round with breaks every quarter,” she said. 

So how did we get to where we are today? For that we have to look beyond the schoolroom doors. In the early 1800s the idea of taking a vacation was something that only the social elite even considered. But that began to change with the establishment of the middle class and white-collar work.  

“There were some medical theories that suggested that while manual labor is the tradition of how people worked, so if you are working on a farm do you really need a vacation?" Przblek said. "But if you were doing mainly brain work there were a lot of theories that you could not do that all the time without harming an individual or a child, so the idea of giving people a break was kind of associated with that.”

At about the same time, access to the countryside was opening up to more city dwellers through the expansion of railroads, and the idea of summer vacation took root. Meanwhile, education reformers began to push for mandatory school attendance and standardized schools, which logically led to the need for a standardized school year.

In 1895 Pennsylvania became one of the first states to mandate school attendance, and a summer break was institutionalized. 

But summer vacation opened a whole new set of concerns for parents in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“At the same time that vacation gradually becomes more and more accepted and even expected, there’s always that question, ‘What if we are idle?’" Przblek said. "That’s not necessarily a good thing. You want people to take a break, but it needs to be a constructive break.”

Dealing with that question is at the forefront of the minds of many teachers and parents this time of year.

“What we do here at Propel Northside is give them some sort of focus," said Megan Newsome, literacy coach at the charter school. "Something fun to do over the summer that does keep their brains working. We give them a calendar and every day there is a different math problem and or writing and reading and science. Something short, something small to do.”

Newsome said even with that, it usually takes a few weeks after the students return in the fall to shake off the rust, but it happens rather quickly. 

But while teachers are thinking about preventing a so-called "brain drain," others are looking at the economics of summer vacation and making sure it lasts as long as possible. 

Summer camps can be big business, and tourism is huge in Pennsylvania, where it is the number two industry in the state. That has lead to the introduction of House Bill 75 by Rep. Robert Godshall of Montgomery County, which would prohibit schools from opening for students before Labor Day.

Godshall said the Labor Day weekend is the biggest tourism weekend of the year, and making sure kids are not in school at that time is a top priority among the tourism and hospitality leaders.

The school districts fight the legislation every time it is introduced, but Godshall said he has data that shows parents approve of the idea by a 60-40 margin, and the older students agree.

“A lot of our kids down here in the southeast were working at the Jersey Shore," Godshall said. "Well it got to the point that they were severally penalized if they left early … they weren’t hired the following year.” 

Schools argue they need to start before the holiday to get in the state-mandated 180 instructional days, but Godshall does not buy that argument. That debate, and the debate over the value of summer break versus year-round school, will continue into the future, and that could be a case of history repeating itself.

“We should remember that the question about school vacation is clearly a part of a larger and just as dramatic change in American culture about the expectations of who gets a vacation and what that means,” Przblek said. “It will be interesting to see how things like more and more virtual work will impact that.”