Trapper Keepers and protractors are flying off the shelves this week, as the end of the summer sends children dragging their feet back to school. In the Southern Hemisphere, summer hasn’t even begun, though, and in many tropical climates it never really ends. Do children in equatorial climates have to go to school year-round?
No. Schools in tropical climates, as in most countries, generally close for a two- to three-month vacation closely resembling the U.S. summer break. The timing of this break varies widely, however, and depends as much on the vestiges of colonialism and the demand for farm workers as on the climate. In some countries, like Barbados, the educational system still operates on the basis of traditions installed by European powers. In others, summer breaks are timed to coincide with whenever children are most needed to toil in the fields. Religious holidays can also affect the timing of vacations, but not as much as the lingering influence of the colonial period and the need for cheap labor.
Schools have summer breaks for many reasons—to avoid student burnout, for example, or save money. While American administrators once sought to give kids relief from hot, crowded classrooms, the long school breaks in other countries can have less to do with temperature. In the equatorial nation of Somalia, the holiday runs from July to August, even though those are not the warmest months. Instead, the timing of the vacation seems to stem from Italian and British colonial influence. The climate in nearby Uganda varies heavily by altitude and region, but the Ministry of Education has scheduled the long break from December to January nationwide. In Brazil, which spans both sides of the Equator, the break runs during the southern summer months of December to February, even though it’s winter in the north. Just a few degrees north of the equator in the Philippines, the long vacation runs through the hot and dry season from the beginning of March to the end of May.
Even within nontropical nations the timing of the long break can vary. Some districts in Canada, for example, have altered their academic calendars so that their indigenous citizens can take full advantage of the hunting seasons. India, similarly, has no single academic calendar, and some of the colder regions take their long vacations in the winter. Other countries are more strict: The French Ministry of Education dictates the same summer vacation dates for all of France.
Academic calendars do tend to follow certain patterns across nations. First of all, the school year nearly always consists of 180 to 200 days of instruction. And while there are many different reasons for and against long summer vacations, most nations agree that students should not be required to go to school every month of the year.
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Explainer thanks Erwin H. Epstein of Loyola University Chicago, Ratna Ghosh of McGill University, and Philo Hutcheson of Georgia State University.