Too-long-holiday blues

The Baltimore Sun

As a massage therapist, Janet Constantino is used to calming tensed-up shoulders and backs. But as she hovered over a cluster of computer carrels at a jam-packed Howard County library yesterday, the mother of two looked as though she could use a therapeutic rubdown of her own.

Daughter Jaci, 6, tapped at a keyboard, her tired eyes filling with tears. Son Jacob, 4, looking bored, played a video over and over. And as Constantino paced back and forth, desperately tossing words of encouragement, it was hard to tell who might melt down first.

Most parents know too well the pressure to keep kids entertained throughout a school vacation. This holiday season, some felt it more keenly than usual in Howard County, where school officials responded to a quirk in the calendar by adding two days to what is usually a 14-day Christmas break, including weekends.

"This has been a long one," said Constantino, who is ready for Jaci to return to Swansfield Elementary and Jacob to be back in preschool.

"Do you feel those extra days?" said the 43-year-old Columbia woman, who was trying to "eat up time" until 1 p.m., when she'd whisk the kids to an afternoon movie. "You'd better believe it."

The school board chose Dec. 22 as the first vacation day. Many private schools did the same, but other public school systems in the Baltimore area did not shut down until Christmas Eve.

For public school officials, choosing the dates for a holiday can be a tricky proposition. While few kids or teachers will resist the prospect of a few extra days off, parents who must provide child care can find it stressful.

And administrators - responsible for providing a good learning environment, not to mention heat and running water - have yet another point of view.

When the county's school board members sat down and looked at the calendar for this year, they realized they had a decision to make. Christmas Eve, always a holiday, would fall on a Wednesday in 2008, Christmas on a Thursday.

Would it make sense to keep the schools open on Monday the 22nd and Tuesday the 23rd?

That was the original plan, said Patti Caplan, a Howard County schools official who chaired this year's calendar committee. At least until several teachers approached a school board member, concerned that it would be hard to get much educating done on those two days, with the delights of vacation so near at hand.

"Kids are so wound up before a break," Caplan said. "With just the two days, they were worried it wouldn't be the best instructional time."

Schools Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin reconsidered - a decision the board later supported in a vote.

The Howard County decision didn't add two days in the summer, Caplan said. They're being made up elsewhere.

"No matter how you slice it, they have to be in school for 180 days, and they will," she said.

A break lengthened by as little as two days can have ripple effects throughout the community.

Howard schools, for instance, didn't have to take the costly step of starting up heating systems for just two days, then shutting them down for two weeks. Also, Hanukkah began at sundown on Sunday, Dec. 21, this year, which meant students could start their celebration and not worry about reporting to school the next morning.

Repercussions were evident yesterday at the main county library on Little Patuxent Parkway, where things were so congested at midday it was hard to find a space in the parking lot. The noise level inside was unusually high, as kids from preschool through high school worked at computer terminals, attended storytelling sessions, viewed DVDs, read and checked out books, and chatted at higher-than-customary decibel levels.

"This time of year, it can go from quiet to pandemonium," said Raul Gordon, an information specialist in the children's department.

For some, the extended break simply meant more time to do what they enjoy doing with their kids.

Brian Keane, an engineer, sat at a kid-size table and read a Curious George story to his daughter, Julia, 4. They're regulars at the library, Keane said, especially now that Julia - a gymnast, a book lover, and a student at Clarlen Nursery School in Ellicott City - has learned to memorize words. Keane, on a rare two-week break from his job at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, said the extra time gave his family a chance to travel to Pennsylvania to visit relatives.

Qena Armstrong of Columbia searched the stacks for books and documentary DVDs for her seven children, who range in age from 16 years to 3 months.

"The extra days don't bother us at all," said Armstrong. By hand-making Christmas gifts, picking apples, making fudge and doing beadwork, she said, the family was finding plenty to do.

But for others, Monday's return to school couldn't come soon enough.

After 2 1/2 weeks of parties, sleeping later than usual and watching Hannah Montana reruns, Constantino said, little Jaci had hit the wall.

"She told me yesterday she couldn't wait for school to start," Constantino said. "Just two days to go."

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