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Howard County school system proposes pre-Labor Day start for 2021-22 academic year

The first day of school in Howard County next year could be before Labor Day.

The Howard County Public School System proposed its calendar for the 2021-22 academic year to the Board of Education on Thursday with schools opening one week before Labor Day on Aug. 30.

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The last day of school is planned for June 14, with five possible snow days and an absolute last day of June 21.

The school board did not vote on the calendar during its meeting Thursday. A public hearing for the proposed calendar is scheduled for Dec. 22 and a board vote on Jan. 7.

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Howard County students have returned to schools the day after Labor Day in each of the last four academic years. The last time the district’s students started before Labor Day was the 2016-17 school year when they started a week before the September holiday.

Students were supposed to begin two weeks before Labor Day this school year, but the Board of Education voted over the summer to push back the start of the school year to Sept. 8 to give the district more time to prepare for virtual learning amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Board Vice Chairperson Vicky Cutroneo asked during the meeting if there was consideration about starting earlier in August to “help bridge the summer slide.”

“Certainly there was consideration about how this calendar would fit if we had to continue with virtual instruction,” responded Ron Morris, Area 3 director of performance, equity and community response. “There was not much conversation about starting school earlier, but there was conversation about the potential impact if virtual instruction continued.”

In a work session to discuss the school system’s proposed hybrid reopening plan Monday, the school board rejected the partially in-person model and voted instead to keep students in virtual learning through at least mid-April.

School start times have been a consistent topic of conversation at both the state and county level in recent years. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan issued multiple executive orders in 2016 that barred school systems across the state from starting school before Labor Day, sparking a debate from some school leaders and the governor.

Multiple district leaders said Hogan’s restrictions of a post-Labor Day start and a June 14 finish puts constraints on them in making room for religious holidays, professional development days and snow days. Hogan, however, believes starting school after Labor Day is popular among Marylanders, boosts tourism in Ocean City and prevents children from being in classrooms without air conditioning during hot days in August.

In March 2019, the Maryland General Assembly voted to undo Hogan’s executive order. Hogan, a Republican, then vetoed that bill, but the legislature overrode his veto and ultimately gave the scheduling decisions back to school system leaders.

The not-yet-approved calendar for Howard includes 180 school days, 193 work days for teachers, 21 days off for holidays or breaks, five days off for teacher professional development, 10 half days and two additional half days for only elementary school students.

Fall sports practice would begin Aug. 11, and the first day for staff would be Aug. 19. Winter break in the proposed plan is from Dec. 23 through Jan. 2, and spring break is April 9 to 18.

The school board that will vote on the academic calendar in January will have a different makeup than the current board. Chairperson Mavis Ellis and members Kirsten Coombs and Sabina Taj will be leaving the board when the new members, who won their general election races this month, are sworn in Dec. 7. Ellis and Taj didn’t run for reelection, while Coombs lost her primary bid in District 4.

Thursday’s meeting was the last for Ellis, Taj and Coombs.

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“You’ve dedicated countless hours to serving the students, educators and families of Howard County,” said school system Superintendent Michael Martirano during the meeting. “Each of you has led our system during several extremely difficult situations and decisions, including a pandemic that is unlike any other crisis that we’ve ever experienced. I thank each and every one of you personally from the bottom of my heart for your service to our county and our system.”

Also during the meeting, Cutroneo raised a motion to allow the board a 5-minute wait time if a member loses connectivity during a vote. On Monday, Cutroneo missed the vote on whether the school system should stay in virtual learning through the third quarter.

“I struggle with Wi-Fi, which is not a secret,” Cutroneo said. “It is a struggle just because of where I live, a rural area in the woods, and it’s worse with inclement weather. I missed a vote [Monday], and it’s the second vote I’ve missed since the pandemic started. I was hoping we could come up with protocols to allow a little grace or time when someone doesn’t respond during a vote for them to get online.”

The motion passed unanimously.

Also during the meeting:

  • The board accepted a yearly audit report from the New York-based accounting firm CohnReznick that gave the school system an unmodified opinion. The unmodified opinion reflects that the school system’s financial statements follow generally accepted accounting principles. The report is more positive than last year’s, when CohnReznick gave the school system an adverse opinion due to the district not having a plan to pay down its health fund deficit. Since then, the school system has cut the deficit in more than half, from $39.2 million to $18.7 million.
  • The school system presented a report on standardized test data for its high school students. The mean SAT score has decreased for Howard County students for each of the last three years, although the average score is still higher than the state and national average.
  • Martirano also announced a new LGBTQIA+ youth section on the school system’s website. The new site is a “one-stop” page, Martirano said, with policies, resources and other information.

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