Community shares little criticism for Howard schools post-Labor Day start date

Andrew Michaels
Contact Reporteranmichaels@baltsun.com

A post-Labor Day start date for Howard County Public Schools was met with little criticism from the community Thursday evening during the Board of Education's public hearing.

About a dozen people testified before the board regarding the Academic Calendar Planning Committee's two proposals for the Howard County 2017-2018 school year. One calendar recognized Gov. Larry Hogan's executive order in September that mandates Maryland public schools start after Labor Day and end by June 15. The post-Labor Day calendar would have school staff return on Thursday, Aug. 24 and students starting on Tuesday, Sept. 5.

A month later, Hogan amended the executive order to allow charter, low-performing or at-risk schools to apply for the Maryland state school board waivers. Although Howard schools do not qualify for a waiver, the committee developed a post-Labor Day proposal if Hogan's mandate is overturned by the legislature.

Reservoir High School graduate Jorge Tirigall, 19, said the board should "trust the governor's actions" to start school after Labor Day, which traditionally marks the end of summer. Now a student at Howard Community College, the Columbia resident said it's crucial students keep themselves informed about what and how the schedule is decided.

"I encourage every student in every school to speak to the educational leaders and politicians about their concerns and ideas," Tirigall said. "The governor has taken a compelling interest in safeguarding the physical and psychological well being of the students. [A post-Labor Day start] gives the students, including seniors, a better advantage of last-minute preparation."

Cindy Vaillancourt, Board of Education chairwoman, said each calendar requires 180 student days and 13 professional days for staff, with 1,080 instructional hours for elementary and middle schools and 1,170 instructional hours for high schools.

Jennifer Mallo, of the Community Advisory Council, said the council supported the post-Labor Day calendar for its appropriation of the obligated instructional hours for students and professional workdays for teachers.

"The instructional needs of the students appear to have been at the heart of this proposed compliant calendar within the confines of the contractually obligated professional days," Mallo said, noting the board should consider establishing a continuity of instruction by including fewer half days in the school schedule.

A post-Labor Day academic calendar would also shorten spring break with Good Friday and Easter Monday — March 30 and April 2, 2018 — mandatory state holidays. Spring break would include those state holidays and run from Thursday, March 29 through Tuesday, April 3, 2018, with March 29 and April 2 and 3 accessible for inclement weather makeup days.

Makeup days on Presidents Day and Easter Monday would require a waiver before use since they are state-mandated holidays. The shorter spring break would further emphasize instruction continuity, Mallo added.

However, BreeAnne Chadwick, a mother of six children in the school system, said her family — particularly her 9-year-old daughter — was distraught over a shortened spring break.

"Our family can't do anything. Our vacation times are gone," Chadwick said. "We have almost no break for Christmas and now we're having no break over the spring."

The Mt. Hebron High marching band's spring break traveling tradition will also be lost, Chadwick said, which includes her high school senior and 10th-grader. The band travels to Disney World over spring break every other year to march in a parade.

"Now, we can't next year because the weekend that we're off is a [state-mandated] holiday when we're not allowed to schedule anything," she said. "This 50-year tradition is lost."

The board has reviewed but not fully discussed the academic calendar proposals, Vaillancourt said, but will include input from the committee and community during a work session next month. The board will then approve an academic calendar on Feb. 23.

"We have to make the determinations about the school schedule for next year before the legislature has an opportunity to do anything to address whether they're going to override Governor Hogan's executive order," Vaillancourt said. "In my view, we might as well go ahead and think of [the post-Labor Day calendar] as a pilot program year; see if we can make it work and evaluate it when it's over."

But, Vaillancourt said, she believes there will be some "unintended consequences" should the school system follow the post-Labor Day academic calendar, including scheduling conflicts for family childcare and before- and after-school activities.

"The loss of academic progress that a lot of children experience over the summer will be just that much more difficult to catch up with," she added. "Maybe we can try to find some enrichment activities over the summer, coordinating with Recreation and Parks; but of course, that takes money. The school system should be scheduled in the way that's most effective for education."

Modifications to the pre-Labor Day calendar add full days for professional work at the end of each quarter, when there are no classes for students; schedules a spring break that does not include the Good Friday and Easter Monday weekend; closes schools the Wednesday before Thanksgiving; and schedules professional learning days on Sept. 1 and Nov. 10.

The total number of full-day closings was reduced from the 2016-2017 calendar's 27 days to a proposed 22 days in both 2017-2018 calendar proposals.

The 2017-2018 school calendar lists several religious holidays on which schools cannot schedule mandated testing and field trips. Religious holidays include Eid Al-Adha; Rosh Hashanah; Yom Kippur; Diwali; Hindu New Year; Christmas Eve; Christmas Day; Lunar New Year Eve; the first night of Passover; Passover; Good Friday; Easter; Easter Monday; first night of Ramadan; first day of Ramadan; Shavuot; and Eid Al-Fitr.

A student's observance of a religious holiday is an excused absence under Maryland law. While state law mandates days when schools must be closed, the county's Board of Education can determine when schools should be closed for other reasons. If the board wants to close schools on a day that is not designated by Maryland law, the district must establish the closure as an operational need or educational interest.

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