Depending on where in the U.S. you live, “back to school” means anytime from late July to after Labor Day (2023)

Depending on where in the U.S. you live, “back to school” means anytime from late July to after Labor Day (1)

About 70% of the 46.7 million public school students in the United States are now back in class, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis. Depending on where you grew up or live now, your reaction might be, “That sounds about right,” “Already?” or “What took them so long?”

How we did this

Pew Research Center conducted this analysis to determine when public schools in the United States start classes. We collected school start dates for the 2023-24 school year from a nationally representative, stratified random sample of 1,573 districts.

To create this dataset, we began with a stratified random sample of 1,500 public school districts that was used in a 2023 Center analysis of school district mission statements (this analysis only covers “regular” public school districts and their equivalents; institutions such as charter schools and specialized state-run schools are excluded). That sample had been drawn from a comprehensive list of public school districts maintained by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). For more details for how that earlier sample was selected, read the methodology for that analysis.

We then supplemented that stratified sample in several ways:

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  • One district no longer exists and was removed from the dataset.
  • Because school districts in Vermont, New Hampshire and New York City are classified not as “regular local districts” but as “component districts,” the initial sample missed them. So we drew an additional sample of 72 districts from those areas and added it to the original sample.
  • The lone districts in Hawaii and Washington, D.C., neither of which were initially selected, were also added so that at least one district from all 50 states and the District of Columbia would be represented.

The data was weighted to account for each district’s probability of selection in both the initial and supplementary samples. Then it was calibrated so that both the weighted number of districts and the weighted number of students matched the totals for all eligible districts in the NCES list.

After these adjustments, we had a sample of 1,573 districts. For each one, we manually searched its website to find its 2023-24 calendar. If we couldn’t find a calendar (or a functioning website), we called the district office. In the end, we found start dates for 1,551 districts; the rest were coded as “no data.”

In most cases, districts had a single reopening date for all of their schools. When start dates varied, we used the date that applied to the most grade levels. In the few cases where we couldn’t determine that reliably, we went with the earliest reopening date on the calendar.

In some districts, certain schools may follow a “year-round” calendar rather than the “traditional” calendar (late summer/early fall to late spring/early summer). In those cases, we used the start date on the traditional calendars, since those were more comparable to the vast majority of U.S. school districts. As of the 2017-18 school year, only about 3% of public schools were on any type of year-round schedules, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Teacher and Principal Survey.

Student enrollment figures are taken from the NCES database and are for the 2021-22 school year. In addition, each district was coded as belonging to one of the U.S. Census Bureau’s nine geographic divisions for regional analysis.

Some, but not all, U.S. school districts offer prekindergarten classes. Student weights for each district in the sample include pre-K students when appropriate, but start dates are based on grades K-12.

Information on the laws and policies governing school start dates in each state came from the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit research organization that serves education policymakers throughout the country.

For most U.S. K-12 students, the school year runs about 180 days, spread over roughly 10 months with a long summer vacation. Within that broad timeframe, however, there are substantial regional variations, according to our analysis of over 1,500 public school districts. (The analysis only covers “regular” public school districts and their equivalents; institutions such as charter schools and specialized state-run schools are excluded.)

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For example, school tends to start earlier in southern regions than farther north, broadly speaking. More than two-thirds of students in the U.S. Census Bureau’s East South Central division – Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee – went back to school the week of Aug. 7. They joined another 19% of students who had started classes earlier. In the West South Central division (Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas), 94% of students returned to school between Aug. 7 and Aug. 18.

But in the six New England states, almost no one goes back to school before the week of Aug. 28. And students in the Middle Atlantic states – New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania – go back even later: About three-quarters won’t hit the books until after Labor Day, which falls on Sept. 4 this year.

Even within regions, districts in the southernmost states sometimes start classes earlier than those farther north. For instance, within the sprawling South Atlantic division, sampled districts in its southernmost states (Florida and Georgia) have similar start-date patterns to those in the East South Central region, while the division’s northernmost jurisdictions (Maryland, Delaware and D.C.) more closely resemble districts in regions up north.

Some states stand apart from the overall trends in their region in other ways. In the West North Central region, for instance, roughly two-thirds of public school students start classes between Aug. 14 and Aug. 25. However, Minnesota law requires schools to start after Labor Day in most cases, and the vast majority of sampled Minnesota districts will go back after the holiday.

In the Census Bureau’s eight-state Mountain division, which stretches from the Canadian border to the Mexican border, nearly half of public school students overall return to school between Aug. 14 and Aug. 25. But almost all of the sampled districts in Arizona and New Mexico, the two southernmost states in that division, start one to three weeks earlier.

Why do start dates vary so much?

While such geographic variations are fairly apparent, the reasons for them are less clear. State laws certainly play a part: 16 states establish windows, either by statute or rule, for when school must start, according to data from the Education Commission of the States and individual state education agencies. But even in those states, the rules are fairly loose – merely requiring school to start before or after a certain date – and waivers for individual districts are not uncommon.

Contrary to popular belief, the school calendar isn’t a relic of the nation’s agrarian past. In fact, into the early 20th century, rural schools typically operated summer and winter sessions, with children working on farms in spring and fall to help with planting and harvesting. Urban schools, on the other hand, were open nearly year-round, though many children attended sporadically or for just part of the year.

Between roughly 1880 and 1920, urban and rural school calendars converged into more or less the pattern we know today, driven by factors such as pressure from education reformers, the high cost of keeping schools open year-round, the shift from one-room schoolhouses to age-graded education, and lower attendance in urban schools during the summer months (especially as family vacations grew in popularity).

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Another possible explanation, for both the traditional calendar and the regional clustering of start dates, is “network effects,” in which a given standard becomes more useful as it’s adopted more widely. It’s easier, for instance, for a school district to recruit teachers from neighboring districts if those districts are on similar schedules.

School start dates could vary even more in the future with climate change. Some education experts predict hotter temperatures may force districts to adjust their start dates or times, especially in places like the Southwest, if schools can’t update air conditioning systems or make other accommodations.

Note: This is an update of a post originally published Aug. 14, 2019.



Depending on where in the U.S. you live, “back to school” means anytime from late July to after Labor Day (4)

Drew DeSilver is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.


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What month is back to school in USA? ›

National Back to School Month History

With more families living in urban and suburban areas, some schools have shifted to a year-round or alternative academic calendar, but the majority of schools still keep a start date sometime in August, making it the perfect awareness month for back-to-school preparations.

Why do Americans go back to school in August? ›

School district calendars all require between 170–190 attendance days. Starting school earlier allows for longer holiday periods at winter and spring breaks. An August start may be influenced by football season's scheduling requirements.

How long does a school day last in the US? ›

Not including after-school programs, in normal times most American children spend about six hours per day in school – fewer in lower grades and more in higher ones.

Why do MN schools start after Labor day? ›

Minnesota's post-Labor Day school start law was enacted in 1985 in response to a concerted effort by resorts, campgrounds, and affiliated tourism organizations to protect the heritage and economic base of our state's tourism industry.

How long is summer break in America? ›

In the United States, depending on the region, summer break is approximately two to three months, with students typically finishing the school year in late-May or early-June and starting the new year in mid-late August or early-September.

Do Americans go back to school in August? ›

While many U.S. schools embrace a 180-day academic calendar, the first day of classes at K-12 districts can stretch from mid-July to early September, depending on the city or state, climate or even whether teachers and students are at risk for burnout.

Is school out for summer in USA? ›

Schools typically schedule a 10- to 11-week break beginning between May and June and ending between August and September. * When a federal holiday falls on a Saturday, it is usually observed on the preceding Friday.

What time does school start in USA? ›

would agree that school start times are not ideal. In America, the average school start times are notoriously early — the average school start time in the United States is 8:03 a.m. In 42 U.S. states, 75% to 100% of public schools start before 8:30 a.m., which is the CDC-recommended start time.

What days do Americans go to school? ›

In the U.S., a typical day of high school starts at about 7:30 a.m. and ends around 3:00 p.m., Monday to Friday. Extracurricular activities are typically scheduled in the afternoons and early evenings during the school week; however, some extracurricular activities may also be scheduled on weekends.

What state has the longest school year? ›

Kansas requires 186 school days, while Illinois and North Carolina mandate 185 school days. These states have slightly longer academic years compared to the majority. On the other hand, some states have fewer required school days.

Which states have 4 day school weeks? ›

What States Have Four-Day School Weeks? Several states have introduced four day school weeks, including Colorado, New Mexico, Idaho, Oklahoma, and Oregon. In fact, 60 percent of Colorado's districts and around 40 percent of New Mexico and Oregon's districts have implemented a four-day school week.

How long is school break in America? ›

Spring BreakOne week
Summer Break8-9 weeks
Thanksgiving Break2 days
Winter BreakOne week or two weeks
May 17, 2023

What day does school start in Minnesota? ›

MINNEAPOLIS — Back-to-school planning has already begun in Minneapolis, with calendars available to help parents prepare for the first day in Minneapolis Public Schools. The first day of school for most students in Minneapolis is Tuesday, Sept. 5.

Do all MN schools start after Labor Day? ›

In the West North Central region, for instance, roughly two-thirds of public school students start classes between Aug. 14 and Aug. 25. However, Minnesota law requires schools to start after Labor Day in most cases, and the vast majority of sampled Minnesota districts will go back after the holiday.

Is there school on Labor Day in California? ›

Labor Day is a public school holiday, per California Education Code Section 37220, recognized on the first Monday of September every year. It is also a state holiday per California Government Code Section 6700.

Why do Florida schools start in August? ›

A: Florida Statute 1001.42 (f) does not allow Florida schools to begin before August 10. To get in the number of required days in the first semester and while working around holidays, it is necessary to start in early August. Q: Why can't we start later, closer to Labor Day? A: We must meet minimal instructional time.

What are American school term dates? ›

School starts up the week before or after Labor Day (1st Monday in September) and runs through early/mid June. Some districts run mid August to early June. Winter Break is usually one or two weeks starting anytime from the week before Christmas to the day before and returning up to a week after New Years.

Why do California schools start in August? ›

At first, Baccus said, parents and teachers complained that they couldn't wrap their head around an August without vacation. But moving up the start date accomplishes a number of educational goals. It allows students and teachers to finish the first semester before winter break.


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