As students streamed out of Harford County Public Schools Friday, they were looking forward to not returning for classes until Monday, Nov. 30.
With the whole week off, HCPS students have a Thanksgiving break matched by only one other Maryland school district. Three other districts aren't doing much either in the way of holding classes this week.
While the Harford students may be reveling in their extended break, their teachers and school staff aren't so fortunate, an arrangement that doesn't sit well with the head of the local teachers union.
Teachers and staff are working Monday, Tuesday and until noon Wednesday. The state mandates that all schools close Thanksgiving Day and the Friday after.
Jillian Lader, HCPS manager of communications, explained in an email how teachers are spending Monday, Tuesday and part of Wednesday, while their students are not around.
"This time is utilized for a professional development conference for all HCPS staff," she wrote, with emphasis on the word "all."
"All staff have the opportunity to review an extensive list of professional development options and may select and register for courses…" Lader continued. "This allows staff to participate in professional development that they feel will best benefit them in the classroom or in their office."
"National as well as local presenters participate in the conference providing staff with a multitude of topics to choose from," she added.
This school year is the second that HCPS has set aside the three days prior to Thanksgiving for professional development, with students given the time off. The proposed calendar for 2016-17, which will be approved by the Board of Education in the coming weeks, follows the same format for Thanksgiving Week 2016.
Lader chairs the ad hoc calendar committee that formulates each year's school calendar, subject to school board approval. Committee members include school administrators, parents and representatives of the local business and religious communities.
She said rising student absences in the days just before Thanksgiving were one factor that prompted the committee to recommend scheduling professional development on the three days prior to Thanksgiving, which was first done last year.
"While it is not the only factor in the decision to hold the Professional Development Conference immediately before the Thanksgiving holiday, historically student absentee rates over the week of Thanksgiving were on the rise," Lader said.
"By placing professional development days on the calendar immediately before Thanksgiving, families who travel may do so without interrupting the students instructional time," she said. "It also assists us in our efforts to minimize the number of weeks that are affected by professional development and prevents the creation of multiple 4-day school weeks."
Ryan Burbey, president of the Harford County Education Association, the union representing approximately 3,200 Harford teachers and counselors, said the Thanksgiving Week arrangement "is a bit of a mixed bag for teachers."
"We all want to maximize instructional time and limit partial weeks," Burbey said via email. "However, when kids are out for an entire week, it causes disruptions in instruction since you must re-teach content and routines upon their return."
"So, in essence," he continued, "it benefits some students while not benefiting others. Most teachers would prefer that the professional development days align with the end of the quarter so that they have additional time to work on grades."
Burbey said professional development time is "crucial to improving teaching practice."
"Having some time near the beginning of the school year helps teachers have the opportunity to learn and implement new pedagogy," he said. "However, most teachers would like to have more time to strategically plan both independently and with colleagues, rather than have three days of professional development stacked together."
He added, however, that "overall, the professional development conference is an improvement over past professional development in HCPS."
"There are also some unintended consequences which have come with having those days off consecutively," Burbey said. "Some teachers are having difficulty with day care. Many of the centers are closing since the kids are off but teachers still need to have care for their children and are having difficulties finding it in some cases."
"HCPS has also issued directives which penalize any teachers who take off during these three days," he said. "HCEA is adamantly opposed to this. In the past, teachers who travel great distances were able to take leave on Wednesday, but this is no longer possible without penalty. Teachers are even being required to have a doctor's note for a single day absence during these days. These requirements and penalties have cast a shadow of what is otherwise a positive program."
Students in Anne Arundel County schools also have the entire week off, but teachers and staff reported Monday and Tuesday for parent-teacher conferences, according to that school system's calendar. Schools are closed Wednesday.
Howard County schools have classes Monday and Tuesday, but students are being dismissed three hours early both days for parent-teacher conferences, according to the school calendar. Schools are closed Wednesday.
Frederick County elementary and middle school students reported four hours late on Monday and are being dismissed three and a half hours early on Tuesday, because of conferences, according to the school calendar. High school students had full class days scheduled Monday and Tuesday. Schools are closed Wednesday.
Queen Anne's County elementary and middle students have the day off Monday and Tuesday for parent conferences, while high school students have classes both days, according to the school calendar. Schools are closed Wednesday.
Eleven of the remaining 19 Maryland districts are closed Wednesday, including Cecil County Public Schools. The rest, including Baltimore County, are closed only Thanksgiving and Friday.
As with Thanksgiving, HCPS has taken a similar approach to extending the students' spring break while holding professional development days.
This year, students will be off on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, March 21-24, while Good Friday on March 25 and Monday March 28 following Easter are mandated school holidays. HCPS teachers and staff will have professional development days Monday and Tuesday that week. Schools will be closed for all on Wednesday and Thursday.
The proposed calendar for 2016-17 does not give students a full week off for spring break. Instead, students will be off on Wednesday and Thursday, April 12-13, 2017, which will be professional development days for teachers and staff. The schools are closed for Good Friday, April 14 and Monday, April 17.
Lader said parent feedback on the pending 2016-17 calendar will be discussed with the school board at its Dec. 14 meeting.