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Harford County students face a nearly 'endless' summer

Teachers' union head foresees dire consequences for families who cannot afford summer food and day care

Thanks to a mild winter and Gov. Larry Hogan's edict that a school year not start until after Labor Day, Harford County Public Schools students, teachers and staff are on track for one of the longest summer breaks in many years.

When the 2017-18 school year starts Sept. 5, the first school year in quite some time with a post-Labor Day start, students could be wrapping up more than three months of vacation. That's if this winter stays as mild as it has been, with unusually warm temperatures this month that have regularly reached 70 and beyond, and schools are not closed for inclement weather.

That's looking more and more likely, with the National Weather Service forecasting daily high temperatures of 50 or more degrees, except for Sunday's 46 degrees high, and overnight lows above freezing through midweek. March 1 is Wednesday.

Nine inclement weather makeup days have been built into this year's calendar, and none of those days look like they'll be used as of Wednesday. The academic year for kindergartners through 11th graders would end June 7 if Harford County continues to avoid major snow storms.

"This would mean students returning next year will have 12 weeks and three days for summer vacation," HCPS spokesperson Jillian Lader wrote in an email Wednesday.

"This will not affect end of year scheduling for matters such as testing," she continued.

Harford students eligible for free and reduced-price meals can get those meals at school during the year, and they can get breakfast and lunch for free during the summer through the USDA's Summer Food Service Program.

"If school ends in early June, we will adjust the starting dates to meet the needs of the community," Gary Childress, supervisor of food and nutrition for HCPS, said in a statement provided by Lader. "We understand the importance of the program and can adjust the normal schedule to accommodate an early end of the school year."

Sandra Monaco, president of the Harford County Council of PTAs, said parents she has spoken with recently are "giddy with excitement" about the potential for a three-month summer vacation.

Summer breaks have been cut short in recent years as major snow storms have hit the county and forced officials to close schools on multiple days.

The multiple snow days, combined with a school year that began in late August, meant students had about 10 weeks for summer vacation in 2015 and 2016.

School ended June 15, 2016, last year, giving students 10 weeks and one day before they went back to school this year on Aug. 25.

Next year, per executive order by the governor, public schools in Harford and some other jurisdictions across the state will start after Labor Day. The 180-day school year must end by June 15.

Hogan, along with Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot, said when the executive order was announced last August that parents and children could spend more time together during the extended summer vacation, children would not have to be in school buildings that don't have air conditioning and businesses that depend on summer tourism would get a boost.

Monaco noted the hot weather during the beginning of the current school year made it difficult for students and parents to get back in the groove — schools in Baltimore County were closed for two out of five days of the first week because of the heat, as a number of buildings did not have central air-conditioning.

"I think people are excited for the kids," Monaco said. "Last summer, I think, seemed very short, especially since the first two weeks of school last year were so hot. I think it was hard for people to get back in the swing of things."

Monaco, a Jarrettsville resident, has two children attending Harford County schools. She said the extra vacation days give parents more time to take their children to visit cultural institutions, such as museums, in surrounding cities, high school students have more time to work summer jobs, plus there are more days to schedule college visits.

She said parents might appreciate that students can also get extra time to decompress from the intensive standardized testing schedule during the school year.

"I think they're thinking the longer break will be a positive change for the kids to be kids," Monaco said.

She expects there could be disadvantages for families who must pay for additional days of child care while parents are at work, or who cannot afford summer enrichment camps.

"The only disadvantage to the long break is for those children who maybe won't have the opportunity to do some enrichment," Monaco said.

"I'm excited that they are going to have a nice long break. I think that it's important for them and for families to have more family time over the summer," said Heather Krout as she and a group of moms stood at the end of the Ma and Pa trail at Friends Park in Forest Hill Thursday morning, following a walk with their young children.

She and others in her group agreed that it is great to go back to the way it used to be when they were in school and have a nice long vacation, enjoy the summer and not feel so rushed.

"We do have a camp scheduled but it will be nice to have some unscheduled time for the kids to just be kids and be outside and play or whatever." Krout said.

Ryan Burbey, president of the Harford County Education Association, anticipates the extended break could harm families who depend on meals from the schools for their children, live in dwellings without air-conditioning and struggle to cover the expenses of day care.

"I think it's a serious community health concern, to be honest," Burbey said Thursday.

The head of the teachers' union noted teachers are under contract to work 190 days each year, and they must find other sources of income for the other days.

Teachers will also get their first paycheck several days after the school year starts because of the scheduling of pay periods, according to Burbey.

A number of HCPS support staff work 10 months out of the year, meaning they need other work to cover the remaining two months of income.

"I don't think any of our teachers are taking an extra vacation in Ocean City this year, knowing they have an extra three weeks without pay that they couldn't plan on and didn't anticipate," Burbey said.

Franchot is one of the few Maryland Democrats who expressed support for Hogan's executive order. A number of Democratic legislators, along with officials in local school districts, pledged to fight it.

HCPS Superintendent Barbara Canavan, her top aides and the school system's calendar committee developed a calendar for next year that met the requirements of the order, though, and the school board approved it.

"I think the Board of Education did the right thing in making a calendar that complied with the order, and the order is what it is," Burbey said, noting that fighting would have delayed the release of next year's calendar.

Wintry, school-closing precipitation must, however, continue staying away from Harford County for the extended summer to happen.

The average high temperature in the Baltimore region has been 53.1 degrees so far this February, according to Kevin Witt, a meteorologist in the National Weather Service forecast office in Sterling, Va.

The average high temperature throughout all of last February was 46 degrees. There were days when the temperatures dipped into the teens and 20s.

Temperatures this winter have fluctuated between mild and below freezing, the result of weather systems hitting the jet stream above the Great Lakes as those systems move from west to east across the country.

"The next three days, we're in a springtime pattern," Witt said.

There is the potential for precipitation in March as storm systems drag a cold front out of the Mississippi Valley.

"We may get more of a storm system track south of us that's going to bring cold air and possibly snow or a wintry mix [to the Baltimore-Washington area]," he said.

Witt noted 11 inches of snow fell in Northern Virginia on March 16 and 17 in 2014.

Burbey said HCPS is fortunate there have not been any closings for snow so far this year, making it easier to meet the mandated start and end of the school year.

"Say we have a blizzard and a hurricane in the same year," he said. "I don't know how they're going to make it."

Aegis staff member Matt Button contributed to this report.

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