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The Baltimore County school board is seeking to fill an at-large seat left vacant by the death of longtime board member Roger Hayden.
The Baltimore County school board is seeking to fill an at-large seat left vacant by the death of longtime board member Roger Hayden. (Taylor DeVille/Baltimore Sun)

The starting day for public schools has long been variable in this country and even more so around the world where year-round instruction and January openings are not uncommon. Across the United States, post-Labor Day starts might have been the norm a generation ago, but there are factors today — from teacher professional days to standardized testing obligations and so on — that were less prevalent in the 20th century. What would the ideal school calendar of today look like? That’s debatable. And, as if to prove the point, Baltimore area school systems are in the process of planning school openings next year on at least three different dates.

In Baltimore County, the 2020-2021 school year will begin after Labor Day even though the holiday falls on the latest possible day next year, Sept. 7, and the system’s staff had recommended starting earlier. In Howard County, public schools will open a whopping two weeks before Labor Day on Aug. 25. And in Anne Arundel County, parents should probably plan on getting their kids out the door on Aug. 31 (assuming the school board approves the county’s proposed calendar as expected on Nov. 20). That’s a remarkable variation given that all Maryland schools were recently required to start after Labor Day under an executive order signed by Gov. Larry Hogan in 2016 but repealed by the Maryland General Assembly — which had to overcome a gubernatorial veto last March to do so.

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Yet for all the oddity of having a post-Labor Day start in one county and a two-week earlier beginning in an adjacent subdivision, neither seems an unreasonable choice. Rather, the school boards responded to different priorities. Consider, for example, the complaints of Howard County parents who struggle to find child care in late August; they will be happy with the earlier start. But then there are the Baltimore County families of 4H kids who didn’t want an early start to interfere with the State Fair that runs the week before Labor Day; the later start will be fine by them.

And there are other factors — like Advanced Placement testing dates that are set nationally so students with fewer school days prior to early May are disadvantaged (which puts college credits worth potentially thousands of dollars at risk), or the plight of low-income families who depend on school nutrition programs, and on and on. Clearly, one size never fit all.

Next year’s school calendar was a fascinating test case because of the late Labor Day, but the testing isn’t over yet. Some calendars have been left vulnerable to disruption if Maryland sees a lot of inclement weather this winter. Counties starting after Sept. 7 are at risk of going into late June or perhaps having to shorten spring breaks, which will make few happy. Still, it’s all a trade-off, and most families understand this. When Anne Arundel County Public Schools surveyed parents and guardians about when school should start, they found a lot of support for post-Labor Day. But here’s the rub: When they asked should schools start before Labor Day, after Labor Day or “depends on holidays and other considerations,” the majority chose either pre-Labor Day or “depends” over post-Labor Day demonstrating a depth of understanding not always found in the State House.

Staff greets students as they head from the buses and into the building on the first day of school at Lake Elkhorn Middle School in Columbia earlier this year.
Staff greets students as they head from the buses and into the building on the first day of school at Lake Elkhorn Middle School in Columbia earlier this year. (Doug Kapustin/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

How did a uniform opening day of school get on the state’s agenda in the first place? Good question. It had to do with politics, the governor’s useful alliance with Comptroller Peter Franchot and his desire to do a solid for Ocean City — or at least appear to. Whether ordering a later school start had much impact on the tourist trade there is a bit iffy. Our Republican governor has since moved on when it comes to schools, however. His focus now is on denouncing reform efforts and the prospect of spending more money on public education.

Hat’s off to all those school boards, then, that drilled into the pros and cons this fall and made their choices or are about to (Baltimore City’s school board is expected to vote Tuesday on a proposal in which classes start Aug. 31 and end June 11). That’s how the system is supposed to work. Now, perhaps they can go back to focusing on the quality of education and not just its relationship to Labor Day. Given last month’s report of a statewide decline in reading test scores, the more time spent in the classroom by the current generation of Maryland students is likely for the better.

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