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'We’re all just wondering why we’re here': Extra school days lead to empty classrooms in Maryland

Summer camps across the Baltimore region, including the Cylburn Nature Camp, have started but school is still in session for Baltimore public school students. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

Summer camps across the Baltimore region kicked off on Monday. Sunscreen-slathered children showed up to play soccer, sail or otherwise revel in the sun.

There was just one problem: For many of the children who spent their day playing outside, school was still in session.

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A drawn-out battle over school calendars contributed to widespread absences Monday — and more were expected Tuesday — as some districts’ academic years drag on, after many children have already checked out.

Public schools in Maryland originally were supposed to let out by last Friday, under Gov. Larry Hogan’s executive order requiring that all school districts squeeze 180 days between Labor Day and June 15. But an unexpected number of bad-weather days this school year left Baltimore and some other districts unable to get the days in.

The General Assembly approved, and Hogan signed, emergency legislation this spring allowing districts to extend their school years for up to five days beyond June 15 to make up the snow days.

Six districts used that flexibility to extend their school years. In this region, Baltimore and Howard County pushed their end dates back to Tuesday.

To the chagrin of many, Baltimore didn’t make the change official until April 24, after parents and teachers had already signed up for camps, booked vacations or made other plans for a summer break that was, at that point, less than two months away.

The Baltimore school board voted to make Monday and Tuesday “regular school days” for students and staff. Teachers and principals described them as anything but. Scores of students stayed home Monday, as did many teachers. With final exams completed and grades filed, some who did attend asked themselves: What is the point?

English teacher Kozbi Simmons said Digital Harbor High School, a South Baltimore magnet school that enrolls more than 1,200 students, was a ghost town. By 10 a.m., she said, she had seen roughly six students in the halls. And those students weren’t attending classes or doing assignments — they had shown up to help teachers pack up their classrooms.

Simmons said Friday felt like the real end of the school year. Attendance was down, as it typically is on any last day of school, but not to the depths it sank to on Monday and is expected to reach Tuesday.

“We’re all just wondering why we’re here,” she said.

There was one student — 16-year-old Wilmer Sevilla — in Simmons’ classroom Monday morning, and he was there only to say goodbye to his teacher and help her schlep classroom materials out to the car.

Sevilla said all his other friends had already left for vacations, or were “just at home having their own time.”

“I’ve never seen less people here,” he said.

At Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, teacher Corey Debnam said at noon that not one student had come through his class.

Corey Basmajian, the principal at Francis Scott Key Elementary/Middle School, said roughly 40 students showed up for school Monday. His school enrolls more than 400.

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Report cards are done, he said, eliminating much of the incentive for showing up. Many of the students were watching movies, helping teachers break down their classrooms or working on outdoor projects.

He knew the school wouldn’t have great attendance Monday, as he’s come to expect each year on the last few days. But there was a new twist this year: Roughly a third of his teaching staff called out.

“I’ve never had this many teachers out on a given day,” he said. “Ever.”

With the June 15 cutoff, he said, teachers felt confident in booking their vacations to start over the weekend or on Monday. But even with about 10 teachers missing, there was still a ratio of about two students for every one teacher.

District-wide attendance data was not immediately available, a city schools spokeswoman said.

Some teachers and parents criticized the governor for what they viewed as an intrusion into local school systems’ authority to set their own calendars, which resulted in the last-minute changes.

Hogan’s spokeswoman, Amelia Chasse, said two months was “more than adequate time” for school systems to alert families to the calendar change, and that the majority of Marylanders support the governor’s return to a “common-sense calendar” that starts after Labor Day.

Hogan signed the executive order in August 2016 to give families more time together, help tourism and keep students in the Baltimore area out of sweltering classrooms.

Temperatures on Monday spiked into the mid-90s. Dozens of city schools lack air conditioning.

Patterson High School teacher Jim Ritter took off work Monday, but not to get a jump-start on vacation. He’s the director of the Cylburn Nature Camp, and he didn’t want to miss the chance to get to know his campers on their first day.

Roughly 30 campers spent Monday running around the North Baltimore arboretum and doing arts and crafts. They experimented with papier-mache and studied the slugs and earthworms they stumbled upon while hiking the trails.

Jay Pendell Jones’ son is a first grader at Thomas Johnson Elementary Middle School. But on Monday, he sent him to the Cylburn camp instead. His family had already paid for the program by the time the city announced that it was adding extra days.

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