Nikki Ham was ready for summer to end two weeks ago. But the state of Maryland was not. So her sons remained on their break from school as she scrambled to find late-August child-care options while lamenting the delay of their classroom learning.
"It's been too long," said Ham, a mother of two in Upper Marlboro, as her wait for the new school year was finally ending.
Under a new state mandate, most Maryland schools had to hold off until after Labor Day to start classes this year. This has been a big change for many families.
Some have reveled in the chance for more family time, kids' activities and trips out of town. But for others, especially families with young children and two parents who work, the extended summer has been no day at the beach. Instead, it has presented challenges, including the expense of patching together more child care. Questions have also arisen about academic consequences.
In Montgomery County, students return Tuesday, about a week later than last year. In Prince George's, school starts Wednesday, more than two weeks later.
"I keep calling it the extended summer," said Aiyshen Padilla, a Bowie mother of three. "It's a lot of downtime."
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) issued an executive order a year ago delaying the opening of schools and setting an end date of no later than June 15, saying that the summer-preserving measure would benefit the state's economy and families. At the time, all but one Maryland school system opened before Labor Day.
His action came as many school systems nationally were pushing calendars in the opposite direction, amid concerns about academic preparation, testing schedules, curriculum reforms and teacher training. In the Washington region, Fairfax County started in late August this year, after getting a waiver from Virginia's tourism-minded Kings Dominion law.
Political leaders were still jostling over the issue last week. Prince George's officials called a news conference to make the case once again for local control of school calendars. They said the district, with a large number of disadvantaged students, wanted to resume classes Aug. 22 but was denied a waiver.
"By starting school on September 6th, I assure you that some of our students are sitting idle for an extra two weeks instead of learning, and some will go to sleep hungry," said Kevin Maxwell, the school system's chief executive.
A spokeswoman for Hogan fired back, calling the order a "common-sense decision" that drew bipartisan support and was favored by an overwhelming majority of Maryland residents. Prince George's did not provide a compelling waiver justification, Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said.
The order "doesn't change the number of days students are in class," Chasse said. "In fact, the governor's action will prevent the numerous, random and sporadic union service days that have plagued previous school calendars from negatively affecting children and families."
As the debate simmers, Rafe Petersen, a father of three in Chevy Chase, has become a fan of the late-starting school year.
For the extra week of August, he and his wife took turns working from home. Without kids in school or camp, they had more unscheduled time with their three children, ages 10, 12 and 14. The pace was slower, and the stress was gone. The family did some back-to-school shopping. There was less rush to finish summer reading assignments.
"Just hanging with the kids for a week, it was great," he said. "It's more consistent with what I had growing up."
Others found the timetable more onerous, saying summer camp possibilities are fewer as August wears on. One reason is that college students account for many on their summer staffs, and by mid-August they begin returning to school themselves.
"Our phones were ringing off the hook with parents who couldn't find something for their kids to do," said Bob Sickels, owner of Kids After Hours, which operated summer camps for 10 weeks in Montgomery.
At Koa Sports, a nonprofit youth sports organization, chief executive Tony Korson extended his summer camp from nine to 11 weeks when he realized in June so many parents had no alternatives. Students from kindergarten to eighth grade played dodgeball, capture the flag, basketball and other games in an indoor sports gym in North Bethesda during the last weeks of August.
"Never is the summer too long!" declared Daniel Boukhvalova, 9.
Because the date of Labor Day shifts from year to year, the exact length of summers could fluctuate under the Hogan mandate. Snow days could also make a difference. Some school systems have compensated by scaling back on spring break or changing teacher workdays. Maryland law requires a 180-day school year.
Not all Maryland counties are starting school after Labor Day. Garrett and Allegany, in the western part of the state, opened in August after getting waivers based on their histories of snow days.
Sarah Kessler, a mother of two in Montgomery County, said when she heard about Garrett's early opening, she called that county's school system. "How are you guys in school?" she asked with surprise.
Her own children wish they were already in class. "They want to see their friends, they want to have a schedule," she said. Traveling was not possible, she said, because her eldest plays high school sports — which started Aug. 9.
"Parents and children are just craving a routine at this point," she said.
Some educators and parents worry the extended summer could exacerbate summer learning loss, the phenomenon of children losing ground academically during long breaks from school. Low-income children are most affected, research has found.
But Harris Cooper, a Duke University professor of psychology and neuroscience, said the losses students experience after nine or 10 weeks out of school would not necessarily deepen if summer break goes another week or two.
"We know kids lose during the summer," he said, "but we don't know the nature of that curve. The question becomes: When have kids forgotten all they're going to forget?" If the number of days in class stays the same, he said, "my suspicion is it's not going to be a big issue."
Jes Ellis, a teacher in Prince George's, said her first reaction to the change was: fantastic. More family time. But then she thought about the students at her school, many from low-income families. Parents work multiple jobs. For students, summer break can be a time of isolation, struggle and boredom, she said.
Just beyond her Maryland neighborhood, her students' peers in D.C. schools have already started classes.
"I wish my students were doing that, too," she said. "I don't think any of them is at Ocean City, having a last hurrah at the beach."
As a teacher, she worries that a later start date — with its condensed school year — means less professional development, fewer planning days and breaks, and reduced flexibility with instruction, she said.
In Upper Marlboro, Ham says her sons, ages 6 and 10, did not spend late August at the beach, either.
When she could not find strong prospects for summer camp, she sent her children to spend a week with their grandparents in Philadelphia. After that, she hired a babysitter to come every day. But she says she is worried most about their learning.
Both will attend Capitol Heights Elementary School.
"They won't be picking up new material, new concepts," she said, "until the third or fourth week of September. That's a concern to me as parent.
"I want them to have as much instruction and as much time learning as possible."