School systems across Maryland are looking at stark choices as they draw up calendars for next school year. Spring break could be shortened. Time off on the Jewish holidays could be in jeopardy. Extra days of instruction could fall away.
In Montgomery County, with the state's largest school system, five scenarios are on the table as the Board of Education discusses the issue Tuesday. Few are thrilled with the options, so the district is welcoming other ideas, too.
"I wish someone would come up with a miracle suggestion," said Patricia O'Neill, chair of the board's policy committee. "There's clearly not time to do everything we'd like."
The conundrum comes as school district leaders face the second year of a state mandate that requires Maryland schools to open after Labor Day and close by June 15. The schedule, ordered by Gov. Larry Hogan (R), came as a way to extend summers for families and boost tourism and the economy.
But school systems have struggled with the fallout.
Some cut back on spring breaks or teacher work days for this school year. But many say that next year's calendar plan is more challenging as a result of yearly shifts in holidays and other dates that make a condensed timeline even tighter.
"There aren't any really great options," said Rebecca Smondrowski, a school board member, noting how much easier it would be if school let out a week later in June. Under the constraints the district faces, she said, "we're going to have to take things away from people that they're used to and that they value and appreciate."
Putting calendars together is trickier than many realize, district leaders say. State law requires a 180-day school year. It also gives students time off on 15 other days next year, including seven from Christmas Eve through New Year's Day and two around Easter.
School systems must build in at least three snow days before June 15, and some — like Montgomery — have typically opted for a longer-than-required school year. In many recent years, officials say, Montgomery has had a 184-day calendar. Some of the proposals for next year reduce that to 180 days.
"Personally, I think we are shortchanging children by using a shorter school calendar," O'Neill said. "Our calendar should be going up in the number of days, not going down."
Still, she said, she does not want to cut spring break or open schools — for the first time in more than 40 years — on the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
In the 1970s, Montgomery began giving the two Jewish holidays off when they coincide with school days, citing a high level of student and staff absences that affected school operations.
Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said his organization is urging families to voice their concerns as Montgomery debates its calendar. The two holidays are widely observed, he said, and having them off is critical.
"If schools were open on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is my belief that there would be an extraordinary rate of absenteeism," Halber said, also predicting an angry reaction. "You're hitting people in their guts, you're hitting them on something they care deeply about. Creativity is going to be the solution here."
In recent years, Muslim community leaders have pushed for time off to mark one of their faith's major holidays, and last year, the school district moved a teacher work day to coincide with the Islamic holy day of Eid al-Adha.
Others have advocated for time off on the Hindu holiday of Diwali.
Montgomery set up a website to seek feedback on calendar possibilities, and more than 1,000 comments have poured in, according to O'Neill. District staff have conducted about 30 focus groups, she said.
Lynne Harris, president of the countywide council of PTAs, has heard opinions from all sides. Some people are fine with ditching spring break, for instance, while others say they can't live without it, she said.
Montgomery's collection of proposals include varying trade-offs.
One would reduce the school year to 180 days, give students and staff days off for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and keep spring break intact. But there would be no full-day teacher work days.
Another with a 180-day year would allow two full-day teacher work days, keep the two Jewish holidays as days off and reduce spring break by two days.
Spring break is a priority for many students, said Matthew Post, the board's student member.
"The overwhelming thing from students, which you might imagine, is concern about spring break," he said, pointing out that while some visit colleges or head to Disney World, others see it as an important chance to visit family members in other countries.
"I think students as well as parents will be devastated if spring break has to be cut because of Governor Hogan's order," he said.
In a statement, Hogan's office said an overwhelming majority of Marylanders support a "return to common-sense school scheduling" and that it was "simply dishonest" to "pretend that starting school after Labor Day puts religious holidays or spring break in jeopardy."
"It is absurd for school systems to consider eliminating traditional holidays or spring break rather than removing the numerous union service days randomly scattered throughout the year," the statement said.
This year's calendar in Montgomery included one full-day teacher work day during the school year. Most were scheduled before school started.
Other school systems have similarly struggled with priorities as they draft calendars for the 2018-2019 school year.
Baltimore County is looking at two calendar options — one of which would keep schools open on the Jewish holidays for the first time in more than 20 years, said spokesman Mychael Dickerson. A vote is expected Oct 24.
In Anne Arundel County, a calendar committee expects to send a recommendation to the school board Oct. 18. "We're trying to figure it out like everyone else," said spokesman Bob Mosier. "Everything's in play. Is opening on Yom Kippur in play? Yes. Is opening the day before Good Friday in play? Yes. Is opening the day before Thanksgiving in play? Yes."
In Prince George's County, a calendar committee plans to start working on a proposal in late October and send a draft to the school board in November, officials said. And in Howard County, two proposals offered as a starting point would continue giving the two Jewish holidays off.