Harford County Public Schools students will go back to school after Labor Day next year, following a lengthy and spirited debate Monday among Board of Education members.
The first day of school will be Tuesday, Sept. 8 for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, and pre-kindergarten students return Thursday, Sept. 10. The last day of school for pre-K students will be Wednesday, June 9, 2021 and Friday, June 11 for kindergarten through 11th grade if none of the six inclement weather days are used.
Children in pre-K would get out by Thursday, June 17, and kindergarten through 11th-grade students would end their year by Monday, June 21 if all inclement weather make-up days are used. The full calendar, which the board adopted on a 5-2 vote, is available online at https://www.hcps.org.
The HCPS Calendar Committee had recommended starting the next school year on Tuesday Sept. 1, about a week before Labor Day. The earlier start meant an earlier end to the school year, with the last day for students falling on June 9 if none of the seven proposed inclement weather days were used.
Another key change from the calendar, as recommended by the committee and HCPS Superintendent Sean Bulson, is converting Veterans Day, Nov. 11, from a day off for students and staff to an early-dismissal day, but still in observance of the holiday.
Harford County veterans’ advocates lobbied the school board to make Veterans Day a day off, so students and staff could spend that time in their communities, attending events to honor veterans and their service to the country.
Veterans Day was a school holiday in 2019; Jason Robertson, second vice commander of the Joseph L. Davis American Legion Post 47 in Havre de Grace, noted there had been strong turnout by young people, including those who participated in the event, for a Veterans Day parade hosted by the City of Havre de Grace and the Legion post.
“This is a learning experience for the children outside of the classroom,” said Robertson, also a Havre de Grace City Council member, as he spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Students in Harford County, as well as their counterparts across Maryland, have returned to school after Labor Day for the past three years, following a 2016 executive order issued by Gov. Larry Hogan, requiring public schools to start after the end-of-summer federal holiday.
Many school districts have approved 2020-21 calendars with a pre-Labor Day start this year, though. The Maryland General Assembly approved a bill during the spring of 2019 to return to local school districts the authority to decide whether to start before or after Labor Day.
The Harford school board’s decision in favor of a post-Labor Day start came after more than two hours of debate. The adult members of the board were split 4-4 on whether to start before or after Labor Day — David Bauer, Joyce Herold, Sonja Karwacki and Vice President Rachel Gauthier supported the recommended calendar with a pre-Labor Day start.
Board President Jansen Robinson, as well as Dr. Roy Phillips, Patrice Ricciardi and Tamera Rush supported a calendar with a post-Labor Day start, though.
Robinson stressed, throughout the discussions, the need to find a compromise, adopting a calendar that has a post-Labor Day start but does not go into mid or late June. Students must be in school 180 days a year, and teachers must be there for 190 days.
The makers of the calendar must balance those requirements, plus accommodate time for seasonal breaks, religious and federal holidays, professional development days for teachers and make-up days if schools are closed for inclement weather.
Robinson said compromise should be found as an example to students and also in light of partisan divisions in the U.S. government and among Americans.
“Whenever there is disagreement, we should be looking for opportunity for compromise,” he said.
Student member Christian Walker was emphatically in favor of starting before Labor Day.
Walker, a senior a C. Milton Wright High School, said he sought feedback from students as well as teachers following the last presentation on the calendar in November, and he noted opinion among those surveyed was “split” about when to start school.
He noted “there were very strong arguments for both sides,” but AP exams and other standardized tests were the factor that convinced him to support starting before Labor Day. Walker said the earlier start gives students taking AP classes a few extra days to review their coursework.
“I know that many of the AP teachers I was able to speak to agreed on that point,” Walker said.
The student representative also stressed that starting the school year earlier means students and teachers do not have to go through late June, when students would be much less focused on learning, plus teachers would have to attend post-school year professional development even later in the month.
“The educational return on investment is not there; students are not focused,” Walker said.
Heads of HCPS employee unions and PTA organizations also expressed support for starting before Labor Day, as well as about two-thirds of the 520 people who commented on the start day during the 60-day public comment period. Twenty-three out of 31 Facebook posts also expressed support for pre-Labor Day, according to data presented by Jillian Lader, HCPS manager of communications and chair of the Calendar Committee.
Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, who has raised sheep and is heavily involved in the local agricultural community, expressed opposition to a pre-Labor Day start when the proposed calendar was presented in the fall.
He noted, at the time, that starting after Labor Day helps students who are members of 4-H and are showing animals at the Maryland State Fair in Timonium.
Robinson noted that state and local officials also have supported starting the school year after Labor Day, as the new schedule has helped bring more revenue to government coffers, revenue those governments would provide to the schools.
Rush, an elected board member who represents rural northern Harford County in District D, worked to persuade her colleagues to support a post-Labor Day start.
“I feel pretty strongly that the people that I represent, and the students that I represent, were very clear about what they wanted,” she said.
Herold noted the board had been discussing compromise and reaching a decision funding authorities support.
“When are we going to talk about what’s best for the students and the people who are serving them in the classrooms?” she asked, drawing applause from members of the audience, which included several union heads, students and teachers.
The board voted twice on the committee’s recommended calendar, with the pre-Labor Day start, and once on the board-recommended calendar with the post-Labor Day start. Each time, they reached the same 4-4 split; Walker, the student member, cast a vote, but it was recorded as preferential and did not count toward the decision.
Karwacki went through a number of recommended changes to the calendar, including a post-Labor Day start and making Veterans Day an early-dismissal day, plus working in professional development and inclement weather days. The board voted 5-2 in favor of her motion — Phillips, Herold, Robinson, Ricciardi and Rush voted in favor.
Bauer, Gauthier and Walker voted against, and Karwacki herself abstained from voting. Her recommendations left a number of board members unhappy, despite the majority approval.
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“I just don’t know how else to do it,” Karwacki replied.