Howard County is not alone in struggling to align its school calendar for the next year with the governor’s mandate to start classes after Labor Day and end the year before mid-June, an exercise aptly described as “always a puzzle.”
But unlike other large districts in the state, the county’s proposals for 2018-2019 are largely sensible and don’t take away religious holidays that have been promised, an issue that is becoming a flash point in neighboring Baltimore and Montgomery counties. Two major Jewish holidays are retained and schools also would be closed for the Lunar New Year and the Hindu Diwali festival of lights, observances that were recent additions to the calendar in response to community requests to reflect and respect the county’s diversity.
Howard’s planners have made judicious use of half-days, which can count as full days of instruction, but also permit parent-teacher conferences and time for grading exams and other obligatory paperwork. Half-days do have consequences: On a typical day, 4 percent of students are absent. When schools are in session for a half-day, the absentee rates can go as high as 12.3 percent.
Planners are hedging their bets with Mother Nature by including only three snow days, or inclement weather days, and might have to apply for waivers or reduce days allocated for spring break if winter is harsh. They will ask for a waiver from the state Board of Education to keep doors open on Presidents Day. (The state requires 180 days of instruction. County teachers, according to their union contract, must work 193 days.)
Absent from the discussions has been the prickly question of flexibility and necessity of a few days-off included in the contract with teachers. What knowledge is actually gained during “professional learning” days or how many teachers attend, and profit from, the Oct. 17 state teachers union convention in Ocean City? These sacrosanct breaks require greater scrutiny.
The scheduling trade-offs are many when piecing together the calendar puzzle. The work of the academic advisory committee that helped devise the recommendations is praiseworthy for its clarity, simplicity and logic.