After waking up at 7 a.m., 17-year-old Alex climbs into his car and buckles up. The Elbert County native heads out early on Monday mornings.
Not to school, but to work.
After the Elbert County Board of Education cut its budget last year by shortening the school week to four days, Alex landed a job so he could earn money during the added time off. He now works at McDonald’s in Elberton every Monday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
As a result, Alex has less time on his hands than many of his classmates at Elbert County High School. “I don’t have this whole day to hang out with my friends at public parking lots or, you know, hook up with girls,” said Alex, who declined to give his last name.
He mentioned the name of a local motel. “I know some of my friends and their girlfriends go there on Mondays,” he said.
Teens like Alex’s friends may not realize how risky their behavior is and the long-term impact it could have on their health.
“Elbert has had the problem of teen pregnancy for a long time,” said Adriane Strong, the adolescent health educator of the Teen Matters Clinic in Elberton. “The teen birth rate was higher several years ago, then it came down. But recently, it may have gone back up,” Strong said.
The Teen Matters Clinic, part of the Elbert County Health Department, was closed for a few years due to a staffing shortage. It reopened last August, just as the four-day school week was beginning.
“Around 20 teens aged 15 to 18 visit our clinic every week,” said Strong, “The majority of them are seeking services including birth control and STD testing and treatment.”
Strong suspects that three-day weekends could contribute to the rebound of the teen pregnancy rate. “There is a large gap of time when teens are unsupervised on Mondays,” said Strong, “That may bring the potential for them to do things that they may not do when they are occupied with school, though they tell me they just stay at home or do babysitting.”
Lack of adult supervision is an established factor in studies of risky behaviors among teenagers, according to Matthew Lee Smith, assistant professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Behavior at UGA’s College of Public Health.
“When students have additional unsupervised time, it may facilitate opportunities to engage in risky sexual behaviors,” said Smith. “Although not all teens will capitalize on these opportunities for risk-taking, the weekly absence of parents or guardians during the Monday workday may afford students with extended time to fraternize with members of the opposite sex without supervision.”
Kids with little else to do
Another factor may be the shortage of safe, constructive alternatives for teenagers in this rural county.
“We have no malls, no movie theater, no bowling alley in Elbert,” said Strong. “There isn’t a lot for teens to do. When they have more time on their hands, we really cannot control what may happen.”
The last time the Northeast Georgia Health District surveyed teens about behavior and risk, in 2003, about 38 percent of Elbert County’s 15- to 19-year-olds said they were sexually active. Of those, 67 percent had multiple partners and 25 percent said they did not use condoms.
More surprisingly, Elbert County had a teen birthrate of 53 per 1,000 teens during the years 1996 to 2001. That was higher than the national rate, showing why teen pregnancy continues to be a top health concern in northeast Georgia, according to the BART survey.
Although it’s too soon to know for sure whether the Board of Education’s decision has raised health risks for teens, Smith said school officials could create work-study programs that put students into paid or volunteer jobs every Monday.
“These study programs have potential to eliminate risky behaviors while affording teens with opportunities to gain work experience, learn skills and responsibility, and earn a little extra spending money,” said Smith.
Like Smith, health educator Strong believes community action can be an antidote to risks associated with too much unstructured, unsupervised time. She talks up Teen Matters to school and community groups every week.
“I try to let them know what we do and who I am,” said Strong, “I really want to help fill the gap after school and provide more activities like having snacks and chatting or playing video games with them. We want teens to feel like they’re at home when at the clinic.”
Elbert County is neither the first nor the only Georgia school district where teenagers now have three-day weekends. Local officials have cut the school week in five other school districts — Chattooga County, Haralson County, Peach County, Talbot County and Wilcox County, according to the Georgia Department of Education.
Yet Peach and Talbot are planning to return to a five-day school week, according to a Columbus Ledger-Enquirer article, which says Stewart County is considering switching to a four-day week. The article also cites concerns about poor Stewart County students not getting free meals at school on the Mondays off from classes.
The Elbert County Board of Education is conducting a survey to determine whether it will stick to the four-day schedule next year.
Dian Cai earned a bachelor’s degree in international journalism at United International College in China. She is now pursuing a master’s in Health & Medical Journalism at the University of Georgia while pursing a certificate in global public health.