Community Voice: The Labor Day conundrum
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.