Summer tourism is under pressure due to the postponement of school start dates

More school districts have moved up their start dates, moving away from travel industry stakeholders’ preference and the historical norm of starting classes after the federal Labor Day holiday. As a result, the industry loses tourists, staff and revenue.

More counties in Florida, Michigan, Illinois, North Carolina and New Jersey are requiring children to return earlier than they would normally start. One of the main reasons start dates are being pushed back is to make up for school time lost during the pandemic, said Martin West, a professor of education at Harvard’s Henry Less Shattuck Graduate School of Education. Study time is critical to student success on standardized tests and other educational outcomes, he said.

“Families are booking with a shorter booking window,” said Intrepid Travel North America General Manager Tom Smith. ‚ÄúTypically, we’ve seen an average of 6 to 8 months for family vacations, especially international long hauls. Families are more concerned about start dates than they were in the past.”

An earlier start date eats up tourist flow for destinations. “August is one of our best tourism months,” said West Michigan Tourism Association Marketing Director Erin Murphy. “Because we start August a little earlier, parents don’t necessarily want to take their kids out for the first two weeks.”

States very often set a deadline for reopening, and individual school districts set their own date within that timeframe. Some states have loopholes that allow counties to start earlier.

In Michigan, schools are required to start classes after Labor Day (the first Monday in September), but some districts can require earlier waivers, which many others now do, to start classes in August, said Murphy of the West Michigan Tourism Association.

Compared to years past, more school districts across the country are starting before Labor Day. About three-quarters of school starts in August, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey. Schools effectively decide that summer ends in August, said Renee Mack, president of public relations and digital marketing agency Perception, who oversees many of the destination’s clients.

“Schools, of course, have changed when the school season starts, and that’s their prerogative,” Mack said. “It’s also really wreaking havoc on your second-largest industry in the U.S., which many say is your travel and hospitality industry.”

The variety of school start dates can make vacation planning and coordination difficult for families who live in different states and counties. “If you’re a couple of families that want to go, you hope your kids go to the same school district,” said Intrepid Travel’s Smith. Families will stop traveling together, shorten their stays and travel closer together.

The tourism industry is losing college and teenage workers, many of whom are leaving their summer jobs or working fewer hours. “All of a sudden, you can’t keep your theme parks, your water parks, your restaurants open,” Percepture’s Mack said. “You don’t have the staff to do it.”

Young customers are also disappearing. “Now that middle schools and high schools start earlier, your clientele doesn’t leave as well,” Percepture’s Mack said.

Before the pandemic, the tourism industry lobbied state governments to move school start dates to after Labor Day. With industry support, governors and lawmakers have proposed bills to push back start dates in New Hampshire, Maryland, Texas, Wisconsin and others.

“It’s very common for the tourism industry in states where this ruling says that districts have to start school after Labor Day and finish by a certain date in the spring,” Harvard’s West said.

Some studies show that extending the summer brings millions of dollars in additional costs to the tourism industry. In New Hampshire, a commission in 2018 submitted a report to the governor that said opening schools after Labor Day would increase tourism spending by more than $14 million. When Michigan ordered schools to reopen after Labor Day in 2006, the state saw more than $20 million in additional spending in 2007, according to the Anderson Economic Group.

However, moving the school start date comes at a cost to working parents. “Denying parents access to foster care in the hope that they will spend more money is really short-sighted about the overall needs of our economy,” said Kathryn Goldstein, a public school mom and creator of The Double Shift, a newsletter on family socioeconomic issues .

For many families, extra summer days don’t necessarily mean extra vacations. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could take the last few weeks of summer to spend a vacation?” said Goldstein. “First of all, we cannot afford it. Second, it’s simply not the reality of working life in America.”

A longer summer will mean parents will have to find affordable and consistent childcare before school starts. The childcare industry has been under “a lot of stress” due to Covid, Goldstein said. Camps are closed all summer due to their staff returning to college, which opens earlier than public schools.

According to a 2021 survey conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, about a third of working parents with young children find it difficult to find childcare.

Because school districts start in August, Perception’s Mack advocates moving Labor Day from the first Monday to the third Monday in September, when summer effectively ends. The postponement of the federal day will continue into the summer season for several more weeks, he said.

“Everywhere you get two or more three weekends of income, beach days, carts, wineries, museums,” Mack said. “You’re talking about billions of dollars that will be pumped back into the economy of many places that need it right now.”

At the end of the day, the most important thing is to ensure that instructional time is not reduced, West Harvard said. The distribution of breaks in the school calendar is discussed.

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