Spring break could be on the chopping block in some Maryland school systems. So might teacher work days or certain holidays.
School officials around the state say they are facing tough choices as they aim to comply with Gov. Larry Hogan’s recent mandate that classes must begin after Labor Day and end by June 15, a summer-extending measure that he says will be good for the economy, schools and families.
While some have cheered the idea of a longer summer recess, school districts are starting to consider what many say are difficult options. All but one of Maryland’s 24 school districts opened in August this year, and pushing the start date to September means it could be a tight squeeze to get in the required 180 academic days and still wrap up by mid-June.
“I guess we kind of hope it won’t snow,” said Michael A. Durso, Montgomery County’s school board president. “If we have a difficult winter — and we have had two in a row now — there’s not much wiggle room.”
School systems say there are still many unknowns. Districts can apply for waivers but school officials say the details remain unclear. They also don’t know whether there will be a new legislative push to change laws about state-required days off, such as Easter Monday.
While lawmakers have asked for a legal opinion about whether Hogan (R) exceeded his authority in dictating a timeline for the school year, some parents worry about finding child care when camps dwindle in late August. Educators have voiced concern about learning losses that disadvantaged children in particular could face with a longer summer. At least one expert said standardized test scores could dip in third through eighth grades.
“Much of the glee that was expressed at the governor’s announcement may dissipate when parents see the difficult choices we have to make,” said Bob Mosier, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel County school district, which is examining whether spring break will need to be cut back to accommodate the change.
Maryland’s move to a later school year bucks the national trend of starting earlier, as school districts have been working to maximize learning opportunities before students have to take standardized tests in the spring.
Neighboring Virginia stands out as one of the states that requires a post-Labor Day start, but many districts across the commonwealth receive waivers to open earlier. Fairfax County, the state’s largest district, received a waiver so that in 2017 — when Maryland districts start after Labor Day — it is scheduled to start earlier, on Aug. 28.
“We feel it’s better educationally,” said Fairfax County School Board Chairman Sandy Evans (Mason). “As much as we don’t like high-stakes testing having such importance, that is our reality these days and we feel that having more instruction time before students are called upon to take these tests is better.”
The Hogan mandate arrived just as Montgomery County’s school system was considering an opposite proposal: To start the 2017 academic year earlier, on Aug. 21, as a way to build in more time for instruction ahead of standardized tests, including state exams aligned with the Common Core. Now the school system expects to create a 2017 calendar that starts in September and ends by June 15.
Montgomery school board member Patricia O’Neill (3rd District) said it appears the district may have to cut a day from spring break or shorten its 184-day school year by a day for 2017, while also resolving how to handle contingency days for snow.
“I think that this post-Labor Day start is out of sync with the realities of the 21st century,” said O’Neill, who noted that Montgomery has more than 50,000 children at or near the poverty level who are unlikely to use the extra time to go on a final summer vacation, one of the economic selling points of the late start.
The post-Labor Day start has many supporters, including parents such as Caitlin McLaughlin, a mother of two in Silver Spring who recalled school starting after the holiday when she was growing up. She would like her children to enjoy summer’s last hurrah, too. Her teenagers recently begged off a backpacking trip on Labor Day weekend because they felt the pressure of homework early in the school year.
“If we’re going to have a holiday weekend, we might as well have one last time when they don’t have school work on their mind,” she said.
But in a state with widely different school systems — rural, urban, near the shore, in the mountains — local needs weigh heavily on how school years are designed.
Snow, for example, is a big factor in the school calendar for Garrett County, home to Deep Creek Lake and Wisp ski resort. The school district has a calendar that is already “down to the bone,” said Jim Morris, a school system spokesman. A few years ago, 20 days were lost to snow, he said.
Morris said the greatest concern is if the new state mandate means that, when snow days pile up, school years get cut short of their required 180 days. “That would give our kids an instructional disadvantage,” he said.
Howard County school board Vice Chairman Ellen Giles said the school system had picked a first day of school for 2017: Aug. 28. Now that will be scrapped. But questions remain: Will the district shorten spring break? Reduce teacher work days?
“If we have to cut back, then I think all things are on the table,” Giles said.
For some parents, losing spring break would be a terrible trade-off.
“It’s a nice family time and a little break at that time of year, as the weather gets nice,” said Kay Helgesen, a mother of two from Derwood, Md.
Kathleen Causey, a school board member in Baltimore County, said she thinks the post-Labor Day start will be helpful to families and students in her district, and noted that 37 schools in the county don’t have air-
conditioning. Causey said she is optimistic school officials will find a creative solution to meeting the state requirements.
But an extra week of summer means more summer learning loss for children from struggling families, said Henoch Hailu, a teacher at White Oak Middle, a high-poverty school in Silver Spring.
“It just seems like another setback that makes it harder for us to continue our work of closing the achievement gap,” Hailu said. “I know an extra week doesn’t sound like much, but it is.”
Educators already find it challenging to complete the curriculum for Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses in time for annual exams, and a later start could cause a classroom crush, said Leah Wilson, a teacher at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville.
“With fewer days, it’s just crazy,” she said. She also said getting back into the swing of school after summer break already is difficult for students: “It really does take a longer time for kids to be back on board after a longer break.”
Michael Hansen, director of the Brown Center for Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, said he would expect a “small to modest decline” in Common Core test scores for third through eighth grades in the 2017-2018 school year, but he said he would not expect a dip in true learning if students are in class for the same number of days.
At the high school level, Hansen said he doubted there would be any measurable difference for students taking AP or IB exams, or college admission tests such as the SAT and ACT, because research shows high school grades are harder to affect in general. “I would be surprised if there is any measurable difference at all,” he said.
Hogan said last week that his staff did not consult school officials before pursuing an executive order because school systems had participated in a year-long study on the issue. The task force doing that study, appointed in 2014, voted 12 to 3 in favor of starting after Labor Day.
Nearly everyone, Hogan said, has been thrilled with the idea, except “a few people in the media and a few people who are paid school advocates. But teachers love it. Parents love it and students love it. And it’s long overdue.”
But Eric Fulton, a father of two in Rockville, takes exception. He and his wife struggled to find care for their two children as summer ended this year, he said. Next year, he expects the problem will be worse. By late August, he said, camp options diminish as college students who staff the operations go back to school.
“It’s very clear this was not made with education or parenting foremost in the governor’s mind,” he said. “It’s clear to me that Governor Hogan has never had to plan for day care or camp for his children.”
Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.