The post-Labor Day start debate continues as Maryland schools begin

For the first time in more than two decades, public schools across Maryland open Tuesday under a new state mandate that required them to start after Labor Day.

Some teachers and families see the late start date ordered by Gov. Larry Hogan as a gift: more time for vacation, more time to prepare lesson plans, more time to play. Others see it as a liability: less time for spring break, and more costs for child care.

“I absolutely love starting after Labor Day,” said Katie M. Ries, a Baltimore County parent. “I grew up right outside of Ocean City, and never, ever started school before Labor Day. It’s un-American. With schools being so regimented and recess disappearing, kids need time to play and have unstructured time. That's what summer is all about.”

But an extra week or more of summer vacation likely didn’t help children in less advantaged communities, Baltimore County kindergarten teacher Julie Mecler said. Some parents might not have been able to afford camp or vacation travel, she said, and without free school lunches or after-school programs, they might have struggled to feed or provide day care for their children.

She worries that her students at Glenmar Elementary School might have spent too much time idle, instead of taking part in educationally enriching activities, and will return to school having lost some of what they learned last year.

“I know it is really nice for some people to spend more time with their children when the weather is nice,” she said. But extra vacation days with nothing to do and parents at work “is not good for the majority,” she said. She said she doesn’t understand why the school schedule should be upended so businesses in Ocean City and other tourist destinations can make more money.

Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises would have preferred to have students back in school before Labor Day. She said she is concerned that the additional week of summer leaves students vulnerable to being “recruited into or victims of violence.”

”“A lot of our kids are not going to the Shore,” she said. “They’re not packing up and going for a final trip to Pennsylvania with the family. They are waiting. … For particular kids, it’s life or death.”

School calendars across the region have been rewritten to squeeze 180 days of class between Labor Day and June 15, as required by Hogan’s executive order. To make it work, many school districts have cut spring break to the minimum two days required by state law, on Good Friday and Easter Monday.

Baltimore did not cut spring break. The school system plans to trim its week-long break if it has to close for inclement weather, and if it’s denied a waiver to add makeup days to the end of the school year.

In Harford County, spring break remains the same, but only after school administrators decided to allow teacher professional development days, which are usually held when school is out or on days when students are dismissed early. One of those spring break days could be lost if the district needs to make up snow days.

Administrators across the region say it will be more difficult to build a calendar for next school year, because schools will have to close on Election Day in November and for a Jewish holiday that falls on a weekday.

Four Baltimore schools — Commodore John Rodgers Elementary/Middle School, Mary E. Rodman Elementary School, James McHenry Elementary/Middle School and Harford Heights Elementary School — received state waivers to start a week earlier because they have been designated failing schools. Allegany and Garrett county schools in Western Maryland were allowed to start early because they historically have closed more often for inclement weather.

The new school year brings better facilities for tens of thousands of students in Baltimore and Baltimore County, where school leaders have struggled for a decade to renovate or rebuild aging schools.

After years of work, the city is finally opening two new schools — Frederick Elementary and Fort Worthington Elementary — under its ambitious $977 million plan to build or renovate 23 to 28 schools. Two more — Lyndhurst Elementary/Middle School and John Eager Howard Elementary — are expected to open during the school year after renovations. Some city high schools will be getting air- conditioning this year.

In Baltimore County, 20 schools will open with air conditioning in classrooms for the first time, leaving only 13 schools without it.

The county will also open Relay Elementary, a new school in the southwest. Two other new schools will open in a year, and several others are being renovated or will be rebuilt.

Several districts in the region are attempting to relieve overcrowding. The new Monarch Academy in Annapolis will help ease crowding in nine area elementary schools. Like a charter school, Monarch is publicly funded and run by a nonprofit, but rather than choose students from around the county by lottery, it has attendance boundaries.

High schools in Anne Arundel County will start 13 minutes later, at 7:30. Elementary and middle schools, which start at different times, will start 15 minutes later.

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