Virginia lawmakers moved Monday to allow school systems to start classes before Labor Day, a measure that would end a decades-old rule intended to boost the state’s tourism industry.
Many school systems already bypassed the provision known colloquially as the Kings Dominion law, a reference to the popular theme park, by qualifying for weather-related or program waivers from the state.
The Senate version of the measure passed with slight differences from the House bill proposed by Del. Roxann L. Robinson (R-Chesterfield). Those differences, she said, will be negotiated over the next week.
Schools that are granted waivers, Robinson said, sometimes start three weeks before other school systems in the state. The law, if passed, would help bring those divisions in line with others in Virginia.
Fairfax County, the state’s largest school system, received a waiver for a second consecutive year because it closed schools for an average of eight days in five of the past 10 school years because of weather or other emergencies.
Karen Corbett Sanders, chairwoman of the Fairfax County School Board, said an earlier start gives students time to prepare for national tests, such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams.
“The more flexibility they give to local jurisdictions, the better,” Corbett Sanders said. “We are, of course, closer to our community and understand what our community expects from us.”
Several other Northern Virginia school divisions, including Prince William County, Manassas City and Manassas Park City were also allowed to start school before Labor Day, according to the Virginia Department of Education.
Tourism advocates have long backed post-Labor Day starts, arguing the extra time would give families more opportunities to vacation and bolster the industry. The issue has been hotly debated for years in the state’s General Assembly, but the Kings Dominion law survived as efforts to repeal it failed to generate enough support from lawmakers.
Eric Terry, president of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association, said starting school earlier would “definitely affect business.”
“We rely heavily on our end-of-August tourism season in Virginia Beach, Williamsburg and the Shenandoah Valley,” he said. “We basically lose the last two weeks of August, which we refer to as our Black Friday. That’s some of our best times.”
Maryland officials are also immersed in a similar dispute. The state’s Senate last week gave preliminary approval to a measure that would allow local school districts to set their own calendars, which would reverse an order from Gov. Larry Hogan (R) delaying the start of the school year until after Labor Day.
Hogan, who has argued the later date would help businesses, give families more vacation opportunities and spare school air-conditioning costs, vowed to spearhead a referendum on the matter if the Senate bill passes.
Many Virginia school districts have already scheduled start dates for the 2019-2020 school year and several, including Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun County Public Schools, are set to begin before Labor Day.
Loudoun schools spokesman Wayde Byard said starting the school year earlier allows for longer winter breaks and more days set aside for teachers to grade.
Arlington Public Schools’ calendar for next school year sets the first day of class for the Tuesday after Labor Day. Spokesman Frank Bellavia said once the General Assembly’s decision is final, the school district would gather opinions from the community about the 2020-2021 calendar.