The Real Reason the School Year Doesn’t Start in January

This year, going back to school is fraught with challenges and personal decisions. But while we're on the subject, isn’t it strange how the academic and calendar year don’t line up?

In 2020, the school year throughout the United States is starting in an unprecedented, scattershot way. Some public schools aren’t returning until October as districts wait to see how other areas fare and how the COVID-19 virus progresses. Many people aren’t sending their kids back to school this year; in fact, here’s one mom’s story.

But as incredibly weird as the start of the school year is this year, you have to admit that there’s always something a little weird about the start of the academic year. Why doesn’t the beginning of the school year line up with the calendar year—or the end, for that matter? How did late August/early September become the default time of year for the start of school? Well, the answer might surprise you. The school year actually dates back to when the farming schedule took precedence over everything else—yes, even school.

Farming can only be done in the spring, summer, and fall. Families needed the kids around to help, so their schooling took place in the colder months when nothing could be planted or harvested. That way, kids were able to help with the livestock and other farm duties during the busy season. Different districts organized the school year around the needs of the community. For example, schools in areas with large fall harvests would have time off in September and October.

Cities operated a little bit differently because they didn’t rely on farming to make a living. They would go to school essentially all year and take a few short vacations throughout. Their school years ranged from 251 to 260 days. School was a lot different back in the day—here’s what it would look like if you were in school 100 years ago.

When education started to become more valuable in society, stricter rules had to be established so that there was more uniformity in the school system. In 1852, Massachusetts became the first state to enact a compulsory public education law, making it mandatory for both rural and urban areas to offer schooling. Parents who didn’t send their children were fined.

Shortly after that, a compromise was made between urban and rural school systems to run at the same times of the year, starting in the fall so kids could still help on the farm during the summer—and that is how the 180-day school year came to be.

So, even though most kids spend their summer at the pool or playing video games and not feeding the cows, they have the farming season to thank for their three months of fun in the warm weather. This year, some school start dates are altered, but check out these other things you won’t see in schools after coronavirus. Plus, check out our comprehensive guide for going back to school in 2020.

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Morgan Cutolo
Morgan is the Assistant Digital Managing Editor at Reader’s Digest. She graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2016 where she received her Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. When she’s not writing for rd.com or keeping the 650+ pieces of content our team produces every month organized, she likes watching HGTV, going on Target runs, and searching through Instagram to find new corgi accounts to follow.