Com­mu­nity Voice: The La­bor Day co­nun­drum

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - D’Ette Devine

The first day of school in Mary­land has been the sub­ject of much de­bate. Leg­isla­tive at­tempts to change it have failed. That de­bate just in­ten­si­fied in Au­gust when Gov. Larry Ho­gan by­passed the leg­is­la­ture, and is­sued an ex­ec­u­tive or­der man­dat­ing that all Mary­land pub­lic school sys­tems be­gin school af­ter La­bor Day. Cur­rently, all sys­tems have this ca­pa­bil­ity, but only one, Worces­ter County, the home to Ocean City, has ex­er­cised the op­tion. Un­for­tu­nately, the or­der also man­dates that schools meet their re­quired 180 days by June 15. We have gone from dif­fi­cult to prac­ti­cally im­pos­si­ble.

Why is that? Why not be­gin school af­ter La­bor Day and close by June 15? Sim­ply put, it is not in the best in­ter­ests of stu­dents. For decades, the school cal­en­dar has been set by lo­cal boards of ed­u­ca­tion. It has been a mat­ter of lo­cal con­trol be­cause lo­cal boards are best suited to make de­ci­sions for their school com­mu­ni­ties. Mary­land’s 24 school sys­tems vary sig­nif­i­cantly in pop­u­la­tion, weather, pri­or­i­ties and tra­di­tions.

The Ce­cil County Board of Ed­u­ca­tion has a pol­icy that out­lines the process used to es­tab­lish our cal­en­dar. An equal num­ber of par­ent, stu­dent, ad­min­is­tra­tor, teacher and sup­port staff rep­re­sen­ta­tives are con­vened and charged to make a rec­om­men­da­tion for a cal­en­dar that best sup­ports stu­dent learn­ing. Their rec­om­men­da­tion comes to me as su­per­in­ten­dent, and I take it to our lo­cally elected school board who makes the fi­nal de­ter­mi­na­tion.

In Ce­cil County, we have lis­tened to our con­stituents, and started school a full nine days later this year. Our first day this school year was Aug. 29. Other sys­tems also set cal­en­dars in re­sponse to lo­cal needs. School cal­en­dars should pri­or­i­tize stu­dent in­ter­ests ahead of busi­ness needs or fam­ily va­ca­tions.

There are many fac­tors that af­fect a school cal­en­dar. There must be enough time for stu­dents to re­ceive all in­struc­tion in­clud­ing prepa­ra­tion for state as­sess­ments and na­tional tests like Ad­vanced Place­ment. In­clement weather makeup days must be built in to re­duce make up time in June. Ce­cil teach­ers are paid to work a 190-day con­tract (10 more than stu­dents). We place the ma­jor­ity of these days at the be­gin­ning and end of the school year. Some oc­cur, how­ever, dur­ing the stu­dent year to sup­port adult learn­ing, and to al­low for stu­dent breaks. Ad­di­tion­ally, there are state-man­dated hol­i­days, which in­clude La­bor Day, Thanks­giv­ing and the day af­ter, Christ­mas Eve through New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Pres­i­dents Day, Good Fri­day, Easter Mon­day, Me­mo­rial Day and elec­tion days.

There are ad­di­tional con­sid­er­a­tions. Ev­i­dence shows that long breaks can af­fect stu­dent per­for­mance that some re­fer to as the “sum­mer slide.” Some chil­dren and their fam­i­lies will be af­fected by ad­di­tional day­care costs, and sadly, by less food se­cu­rity. In Ce­cil County, 45 per­cent of our stu­dents qual­ify for free and re­duced meals, while that per­cent­age rises to 50 per­cent statewide. In Bal­ti­more City, it crests at 98 per­cent. Schools pro­vide these stu­dents with break­fast and lunch, and this is dis­rupted dur­ing the sum­mer months. These are not fam­i­lies tak­ing an ad­di­tional week’s va­ca­tion in Mary­land’s re­sort towns, and will be ad­versely af­fected by this change.

The tim­ing of La­bor Day and the day when Christ­mas falls are crit­i­cal fac­tors in meet­ing this new man­date. Frankly, it will be eas­ier to sched­ule in 2018 than in fu­ture years. That is, of course, un­less we have a win­ter like 2014 when we were closed for 12 days. Sim­i­larly, when we have the lat­est pos­si­ble La­bor Day on Sept. 7, a mid-week Christ­mas and an elec­tion year, it will be an in­cred­i­ble chal­lenge. Add in bad weather, it will be im­pos­si­ble to squeeze in 180 days with­out ask­ing for a waiver. The June 15 end­ing date will force us to ask.

This is the prob­lem. Waivers mean less days of in­struc­tion — less days of learn­ing while our stu­dents must com­pete with global peers who are al­ready in school a lot longer. That is an im­por­tant rea­son why ed­u­ca­tion lead­ers across the state are op­posed to this change. Ad­min­is­tra­tors work year-round. We are not af­fected by a start and end date. Chil­dren, how­ever, are.

I be­lieve this is­sue will con­tinue to be de­bated, and prob­a­bly chal­lenged. In the mean­time, I have asked our staff to look at all fac­tors that af­fect next year’s cal­en­dar prior to our cal­en­dar com­mit­tee’s work this win­ter. We rec­og­nize that the lat­est poll finds 68 per­cent of those sur­veyed cur­rently sup­port this change. Their re­ac­tion might be quite dif­fer­ent when they ex­pe­ri­ence what it re­ally means. We will com­ply with the law what­ever is de­cided; how­ever, tak­ing the cal­en­dar out of lo­cal hands will prove to be a se­ri­ous mis­take with an ad­verse im­pact on many of our stu­dents.

D’Ette Devine is the Ce­cil County Pub­lic Schools Su­per­in­ten­dent.

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