Baltimore County's 'common sense' school calendar

Rosh Hashanah, the first of the Jewish High Holy Days, wasn’t a day off from school in Allegany County this year. Students in Calvert and Caroline counties attended classes on Sept. 21, too. So did teachers in most every other jurisdiction in Maryland except for Baltimore County and a handful of others where there are so many Jewish students and teachers it was long ago deemed too impractical and costly to open schools on Rosh Hashanah.

The same generally applies to Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in Judaism. For much of Maryland, the day isn’t a school holiday, but for some school systems, it’s been observed not because administrators or school boards are promoting Judaism but because it’s simply a sensible choice given their circumstances.

On Tuesday evening, Baltimore County’s school board voted 9-3 to back a 2018-2019 school calendar that continues a two-decade-long tradition of closing schools on the Jewish holidays — but it wasn’t easy. Because Gov. Larry Hogan signed an executive order requiring public schools to start after Labor Day, it’s been a struggle to plan a school calendar that meets the various competing needs from maintaining professional development days and teacher contract mandates to preserving winter and spring breaks and a sufficient number of inclement weather days should they be required.

Baltimore County may have had the toughest job of all. Not only did the county need to preserve its Jewish holidays, the school board had less wiggle room than perhaps any other jurisdiction in the state. That’s a product of the county’s slightly-shorter high school day which means Baltimore County not only faces the state’s 180-day minimum test but its 1,180 school hour requirement as well.

So how did Mr. Hogan react to these travails? Here’s the official statement from his spokeswoman: "The Baltimore County school board’s decision to cut spring break while closing schools for a teachers union convention on the beaches of Ocean City is absurd. Numerous other jurisdictions managed to adopt a common sense calendar that preserves traditional days off while starting after Labor Day — something the vast majority of Marylanders support. Baltimore County could easily have done the same."

Easily? Absurd? The vast majority of those “common sense” calendars don’t provide for the Jewish holidays, but most do provide one or more professional days in late October so that teachers can attend the Maryland State Education Association convention (where attendees are far more likely to be stuck indoors voting on union issues than sunning themselves on the chilly beach). The cheap shot at the MSEA is particularly hypocritical given that the economic importance of this particular off-season convention to Ocean City that attracts about 2,200 educators. Wasn’t the governor’s desire to promote tourism in the beach town the reason we got in this mess in the first place?

At some point, Mr. Hogan is going to have to concede that his executive order is problematic and authorize the state school board — you know, the folks who opposed his post-Labor Day mandate in the first place — to provide waivers to jurisdictions like Baltimore County that find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Starting school in September should not have been the be-all, end-all of the school calendar. It is the proverbial tail wagging the dog. And as for all those polls that say Marylanders are happy with this development, let’s see how parents with school-age children feel about the calendar in about four months.

That’s because a shortened spring break isn’t a Baltimore County thing, it’s a pretty widespread thing. In many communities, it’s just now dawning on families that they won’t be able to travel very far, if at all, when March and April roll around in 2018, let alone 2019. Baltimore County’s March 30-April 2 spring break is matched by counties from Allegany to Somerset. That’s not the week many had in the past, that’s a four-day weekend. So are they all in on the conspiracy to make the governor look bad?

The simple solution is to follow what happened in Virginia where the so-called “Kings Dominion Law,” the mandate that schools start after Labor Day in the commonwealth that was broadly promoted by the theme park’s owners and others in the tourism industry, has been sidestepped through board-granted waivers. This year, 80 of 132 Virginia school divisions qualified for a waiver. Maryland ought to be as generous — and realistic — with a choice that should have been left to local school boards in the first place.

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