Last Spring, the D.C. Board of Education decided to declare fuel conservation days for today and Monday and close the schools. The logic of this was that the schools would be closed yesterday for Martin Luther King's birthday and again on Tuesday for the inauguration, and to turn the heat on again Friday, then off for the weekend, then on again Monday, and off again Tuesday would be a costly and wasteful use of fuel. "It's just very expensive to get the heat levels up in the buildings," says James T. Guines, acting superintendent of schools.
So the four-day holiday went on the calendar and parents got reminders, and hopefull, says Eugene Kinlow, the new school board president, they had enough time to make arrangements for their children's care. "Hopefully," he says, "it isn't much different from what happens [during] spring break and Christmas break, and in this particular instance a number of parents themselves will be taking off for Dr. King's birthday and Inauguration Day. If our communication is as good as we think it is, this should be no more onerous on parents than other scheduled breaks."
While school holidays may not be exactly onerous to parents, they do create childcare problems for families in which both parents have jobs, and for single parents, and for parents who are in school and who depend on the school for childcare as well as education. And while the D.C. schools may have given adequate notice about the four-day holiday that began yesterday, they compounded the chidcare problems of these parents by a surprise notice they sent home Monday: Schools also would close at 12:15 on Wednesday, so teachers could prepare reports on mid-year promotions.
Sharan Martin, a single parent at Murch Elementary School near Chevy Chase, put a notice in the school newsletter she edits saying that parents could bring children to her home and pay her babysitter to care for their children during these four days. "One parent called me, literally screaming. They walked in at 6 o'clock on Monday and were hit with one more afternoon with no place to go. They're angry. They're disappointed. The whole thing is pretty bleak for D.C. schools. One of the problems is the parents support the schools and the schools don't support the parents. The D.C. schools should at least give the parents more notice."
"The worst part of the situation is the absolute kind of confusion and uncertainty of what it's all about," says Patty Johnson, president of the Murch Home and School Association. "And also a feeling of anger because of the [approach to] energy conservation. Murch school is overheated as are many of the District schools. Many parents have spoken to me about it out of a general frustration and bewilderment."
"I personally do not feel angry about it," she says. "I enjoy having my kids at home. I don't find it disorienting in terms of our family life, but if I were a working mom it would be different. That's where it takes its toll."
Another parent who has had children in the D.C. schools for the last 10 years and considers herself a big supporter of the public school system was also critical of the board for scheduling what amounts to a week away from school just two weeks after the children returned from the Christmas holidays. sThis disrupts the routine of both parents and children.
"Then this letter comes home on Monday saying children will be dismissed at 12:15 for teachers to do reports. Little children don't bring things home all the time and we have children and parents who are foreign and don't always understand these notices. I don't think the school system should ever do something like that on 48 hours notice . . . I think it's dangerous. Given the problems in neighborhoods with daytime crime, there is a real problem with children going home and no one being there."
Guines says the schools are required to give two days notice for early closings, and when told of the parents childcare concern, he said they would try to give earlier notice than that -- which they should have done in the first place.
There is nothing easy about scheduling school years and it is not going to get any easier as energy costs become an increasingly important consideration.
But energy costs and teacher refresher courses and all the other reasons for half days and days off aren't the only factors tht ought to be weighed in putting together a school calendar.
While energy costs are going up, so are the numbers of working parents. This means that there are fewer mothers and fathers at home who can drop what they're doing at the whim of the schools. For these working parents, a child's day off -- far from being a source of pleasure to the family -- can be a crisis, particularly when it is unexpected. Maybe there should be fewer holidays, maybe they should be scheduled for Mondays and Fridays only.
School administrators everywhere are talking a lot about conserving energy. They should also pay attention to conserving parental good will.