Carter: A closer look at post-Labor Day start effects on school calendars

Democratic lawmakers in Annapolis are seeking to override Gov. Larry Hogan’s executive order that has Maryland’s public schools start after Labor Day and end by June 15.

A bill that would return authority of setting the start and end of the school year to local boards of education is making its way through the legislature, and on Thursday, Hogan called a news conference to announce he would submit legislation that would make school boards that want to start classes earlier seek the approval of voters. He also discussed putting the matter to referendum by the state’s voters, who Hogan is confident would side with him.

Hogan and Democratic ally, Comptroller Peter Franchot, have touted the economic benefits of the later start to the school year, but education advocates have said it isn’t worth the trade off. But the arguments in favor of an earlier start don’t seem to pass muster, at least not based on an examination of Carroll County Public Schools’ calendars over the past few years and other Central Maryland public school district calendars for this year.

One of the arguments has revolved around the so-called “summer slide,” that is the knowledge that students lose over summer break and must be re-taught when they return to school in the fall.

Summer break was scheduled to be approximately 11 weeks long in summers of 2017, ’18 and ’19 — the three CCPS calendars approved since Hogan’s executive order went into effect. Of the four summers prior, the 2015 summer break was also 11 weeks, and summers ’13, ’14 and ’16 were all about 10 weeks.

While the summer slide is a real thing, it’s hard to believe that the difference between 10 or 11 weeks of summer vacation would have a significant, detrimental impact on a child’s learning.

Regarding child care, I can speak from personal experience having two school-age girls and talking to other working parents that it is typically easier finding child care the entire summer through Labor Day than it is for he random days off in the middle of the year. A weeklong spring break is great if you can afford the time off from work and going on vacation, otherwise, it’s an inconvenience.

Arguments from teachers that the condensed calendars affect professional development time might carry some weight in other jurisdictions, but is patently untrue in Carroll. CCPS calendars from the 2012-13 school year through the approved 2019-20 calendar each included three professional days for teachers — no more, no less — from the time students return to class and the last day of school for students.

What really has changed is the length of spring break, the number of inclement weather days built into the schedule, and depending how the calendar falls, an extra day or two before Christmas.

Now, it hasn’t been the same across the state, but other counties have seemingly made it work, too. Since this has become a bit of a partisan political issue, I decided to compare pre- and post-executive order calendars between Carroll and Prince George’s County, two jurisdictions that couldn’t be more different politically.

In the 2014-15 school year, prior to Hogan’s announcement, Carroll had 25 total days off during the year (the most for any of the eight years we examined) including three in-service/professional development days for teachers, and Labor Day, a six-day spring break and eight days off for winter break.

That same year, Prince George’s County had 31 days off during the school year, including seven in-service days (one for parent-teacher conferences), a three-day Thanksgiving break, six days for spring break and a whopping 10-day winter break.

This year’s calendar for Carroll is down to 20 total days off during the year, three in-service days, two days for spring break and seven days off for winter break. PG schools scheduled 24 days off, including no full days for professional development minus parent-teacher conferences on Veteran’s Day, the same seven-day winter break as Carroll, but a lengthier six-day spring break and three-day Thanksgiving break.

It’s worth noting that Carroll, despite a smaller Jewish population than many other jurisdictions in the state, nonetheless closes school two days in the fall most years for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, except when the latter has fallen on a Saturday. Prince George’s students did not have these days off.

A look at other school calendars in Central Maryland for the 2018-19 school year also yields varying results.

Howard County managed to squeeze 25 scheduled days off into its calendar, including six days for spring break, a three-day Thanksgiving break and the Wednesday after the November election for professional development.

Frederick County has 24 days off, including a whopping nine-day winter break, three days each for Thanksgiving and spring break, a pre-election professional day, and a day off in May for the Apple Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. Frederick schools didn’t close for either Jewish holiday in September.

Both Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties have 21 days off school, but get there differently. Montgomery has a four-day spring break, and also a professional day in June that coincides with the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr. Anne Arundel has off for just one of the two Jewish holidays in September, but three-day breaks for Thanksgiving and Easter, plus a pair of parent-teacher conferences in the fall and spring.

Baltimore and Harford counties keep days off to a minimum, at 18 each, with nearly identical schedules that include only the state-mandated days off, the two Jewish holidays in September, and a single professional day in October for the Maryland State Educators Association conference.

It’s actually quite remarkable how different the schedules are, considering the supposed inflexibility critics have decried. It seems to me that it is a matter of priorities. Local school boards do, in fact, have quite a bit of control over the total number of days schools are closed, what holidays are deemed important for their communities, how long breaks should last and how many days should be dedicated to professional development during the year.

Of course, inclement weather days can throw a monkey wrench into all of these, but past experience has shown that when waivers are requested or when a State of Emergency is declared, so long as the local school system made a good faith effort to make up excess snow days, a few are usually forgiven.

However, when I asked Carroll County Public Schools Superintendent Steve Lockard, about the battle in Annapolis over the school start and end times, he brought up a fair point: “The challenge I see is not so much with whether we start before or after Labor Day, but in having a hard stop date at the end of the school year. Building a calendar that accommodates state-mandated holidays, professional development days for teachers and staff, while also providing an adequate number of inclement weather days built in to the calendar, proves incredibly challenging.”

So let me propose a compromise: What if we stick with the Hogan-mandated post-Labor Day start, but give local school boards more flexibility with the last day of school, by extending the stop date five days to June 20? If school officials can’t make calendars work under those parameters, they have bigger problems than when school begins and ends.

Wayne Carter is the editor of the Carroll County Times. Reach him at wayne.carter@carrollcountytimes.com.

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