Is a longer summer break a good thing for students?
That’s the question raised by a late-summer executive order from Maryland’s governor that schools across the state not begin classes until after Labor Day, starting in 2017-18. The move has some educators warning about the impact on summer learning loss by low-income students in particular, and a cascade of scheduling complications for local administrators.
The order by Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, will still require schools to provide 180 days of instruction but in a more compressed amount of time. The order also specifies that classes can’t end any later than June 15.
Only three other states—Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia—have laws on the books that school may not start before Labor Day, and all three offer exemptions, as will Maryland.
“This policy at first glance looks like a longer summer. Who wants to argue with that?” asked Steven Hershkowitz, the spokesman and policy-research specialist for the Maryland State Education Association. “But when you start to actually look at the policy implications, this could potentially have a negative effect on education outcomes.”
But Amelia Chassé, Hogan’s deputy communications director, said the governor’s order “doesn’t change the number of days students are in class, and studies show that school start date has no impact on academic performance.”
She was referring to a study by a nonpartisan task force of teachers, administrators, school board members, PTA members, and legislators that was commissioned by the previous administration. It determined there “was no quantifiable evidence that a post-Labor Day start is harmful to local school systems.”
Chassé added that the governor’s order also “will prevent the numerous, random and sporadic [teachers’] union service days from negatively affecting children and families. This is about returning common sense to the school-calendar-scheduling process.”
The response to Hogan’s Aug. 31 announcement shows the topic’s sensitivity. It drew cheers from some in the business community for its potential to boost the tourism and recreation industry, but pushback from some state elected officials, local superintendents, and advocacy groups.
The National Summer Learning Association, a nonprofit that focuses on closing the achievement gap by increasing access to high-quality summer learning programs, issued a statement saying that Hogan’s mandate “may be a boost to tourism dollars, but at the detriment to many students throughout the state.”
Sarah Pitcock, the summer learning group’s CEO, said the concern is that a longer summer break could cause the achievement gap to grow.
“This decision really flies in the face of a lot of research that exists that tells us that we need to do the opposite,” said Pitcock. “We need to make sure that kids have more opportunities to learn during the summer. It could be the case that the governor plans to ensure that schools and libraries and rec centers are well-resourced and open also during that longer time in the summer, and he certainly has every opportunity to make that change as well.”
If that is the governor’s plan, he hasn’t announced it yet.
The effect of poverty on academic outcomes is a worry for the leaders of Baltimore city schools, where 85 percent of the students came from poor families in the 2015-16 school year.
“We’re very concerned about summer learning loss, and so, if anything, we’re trying to figure out ways to shorten the time between when school ends in the summer and when it begins again in the fall through enrichment activities for our kids,” said Alison Perkins-Cohen, the district’s chief of staff. “Extending that period of time when there’s not a lot of opportunities for inner-city students to have camps and activities and not a lot of employment opportunities, that’s a challenge for us.”
Administrators also have to consider making sure students have adequate time to prepare for end-of-year and Advanced Placement tests, which will still be administered at the same time even if the school year begins later.
Part of the opposition relates to the loss of local control and may stem from the stress of tinkering with a school calendar, which is always challenging.
Baltimore County schools Superintendent S. Dallas Dance said he wasn’t surprised by Hogan’s mandate that school not start before Labor Day. After all, that idea had been bandied about in the state legislature for years.
But he was surprised that Hogan’s order included June 15 as the latest date that classes could end. State law already requires 180 days of instruction with 1,080 hours required in elementary and middle schools and 1,170 hours required at the high school level.
Dance maintained that doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room.
“Depending on how bad a winter season might be, this could actually take us further into the summer,” said Dance. “School systems will be strapped to find those days within the school year, which means for us looking at days that are off for spring break, days that are off for religious holidays.”
In order to comply with the new mandate, Dance said his district may ask for waivers to attend class on holidays such as Good Friday, Easter Monday, and President’s Day.
When Hogan made his announcement on the boardwalk in the Atlantic resort community of Ocean City, he specifically mentioned Baltimore County.
“August is the second-hottest month of the year here in Maryland,” he said. “A later start date will even prevent Baltimore County, which has unfortunately failed to air condition its schools, from losing so many days of school due to heat-related closures.”
Currently, the Baltimore County district has 37 schools and program sites without air conditioning. Dance said there’s a plan to cut that down to 11 at the beginning of next school year, and over the next two years, to have all those schools outfitted with central air.
Still, he said last week, “with the climate changing, whether it’s before or after Labor Day, you run the risk of classes being hot,” said Dance. In fact, schools without air conditioning were closed at least two days last week.
While Hogan mentioned sweltering classrooms, his main focus during the announcement was the impact of the executive order on tourism around the state. He stressed the importance of family-vacation time for recreation and the need to support business interests in the state.
“This isn’t just a family issue,” he said, adding that it’s also “an economic ... issue.”
The head of the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce is a big supporter of the new mandate. Melanie Pursel, the chamber’s executive director, lobbied the state legislature for years to make a post-Labor Day school start the law and was overjoyed when Hogan filed his executive order.
“As you probably have been told, local jurisdictions feel it should be their decision on how to accomplish their 180-day schedule,” she wrote in an email. “However, evidence and research suggest that this small change in the schedule would have a dramatic impact on the state’s economy, thereby increasing taxes that would ultimately benefit the state’s school system.”
And the public seems to be on the governor’s side. A poll conducted last year by researchers at Goucher College found that 72 percent of Maryland residents favored a statewide mandate to begin school after Labor Day.
The waivers from the new requirement—which would be granted by the state department of education to districts that can show “compelling justification"—may also offer a safety valve, as they have in other states.
In Virginia this school year, 84 out of 132 school divisions, which are similar to districts, have received waivers. While that accounts for more than 60 percent of Virginia school divisions, all but four of the waivers were granted for weather-related reasons. In Michigan, the number of waivers granted grew from nine in 2007 to 100 in 2015.
Administrators in both the Baltimore city and county schools already say waivers are something they would consider.