Montgomery County School Board Votes To Shorten Spring Break in 2019

Adopted calendar closes schools on Jewish, Muslim holidays; includes time for teacher prep


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The Montgomery County Board of Education voted 7-1 on Tuesday on a 2018-2019 academic calendar.

BETHANY RODGERS

Montgomery County students will see their spring break shrink by four days in 2019, as officials pack teaching days into a calendar bounded by a state mandate.

The 2018-2019 academic calendar that the school board adopted Tuesday includes time off coinciding with the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and closes schools twice for teacher professional days. One of the planning and grading days will align with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.

Board members said they don't like to trim spring break from 10 days to six, but felt they had few options in light of state restrictions on their schedule.

“I’m not a poker player, but I do believe it’s the hand we’ve been dealt,” board member Pat O'Neill said before the 7-1 decision.

Board member Rebecca Smondrowski cast the only dissenting vote, saying many community members have voiced opposition to cutting spring break.

Gov. Larry Hogan issued his order to start classes after Labor Day and end them by June 15 as a way to extend the summer break and boost tourism, but the calendar bookends left the school system with only six days of wiggle room in the 2018-2019 schedule. As officials designed the class schedule, they wrestled with how to divide this time between spring break, teacher planning days and operational closures on religious holidays.

Hogan has blasted the Montgomery County school system for crowding its calendar with too many professional days for teachers and argues that his mandate isn’t to blame for the loss of spring break time.

“The overwhelming majority of Marylanders, including parents, students and teachers, support Governor Hogan’s efforts to return to common sense school scheduling, and for school administrators to pretend that starting school after Labor Day puts religious holidays and spring break in jeopardy is simply dishonest,” Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse has written in response to the calendar debate.

Other jurisdictions have managed to comply with the mandate, she’s written.

The governor’s office didn’t immediately respond Tuesday to a request for comment on Tuesday’s vote.

Like Montgomery County, other jurisdictions have faced trade-offs as they work around the state-imposed constraints. Frederick County recently opted to keep schools open on Yom Kippur next year, while Baltimore County decided to shorten spring break.

Montgomery County school board member Jill Ortman-Fouse said the plan adopted Tuesday doesn’t include enough professional time, which school system leaders say is essential for teachers to plan ahead and keep track of student performance.

“This is not something we’re just throwing to teachers, no matter what the governor may say,” Ortman-Fouse said.

In recent weeks, the Montgomery County school board has been considering four different calendar models, including one proposed by Superintendent Jack Smith. The approved plan is a slightly revised version of one suggested by student board member Matt Post.

The adopted calendar:

• Begins classes Sept. 4, 2018, and ends them June 13, 2019, for a total of 182 instructional days. This means Montgomery County students are scheduled to get two more teaching days than required by state law. Because the calendar goes beyond the 180-day minimum, the last two days of class, June 12 and 13, can double as potential snow make-up dates.

• Does not hold classes on the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. MCPS does not cite religious observance as the reason for these closures and has determined they are necessary because of expected high student and staff absence rates on these days.

• Schedules the 2019 spring break to last for six days, running from April 17 to 22. Two of these days are state holidays, two are weekend days and two are closures added at the school board’s discretion.

• Closes schools on Jan. 28 and June 5 for teacher planning and grading. The June date coincides with Eid al-Fitr.

Advocates from the Muslim community urged the school board to include time off on Eid al-Fitr, since schools are closed on Christian and Jewish holidays.

“I am proud to live in a county that shows respect and sensitivity to all its citizens. I am hopeful that my school system will follow the county’s lead in this regard and allow our children to celebrate and express their faith in an open, fair and equal manner as their Christian and Jewish classmates do,” Samira Hussein, co-chair of the Equality 4 Eid Coalition, testified at the beginning of the meeting.

Following the calendar vote, Hussein said she was excited that no classes were scheduled for June 5. She and other advocates were not pleased, though, that the adopted calendar identifies the date as a potential snow makeup day.

In a statement after the vote, the Montgomery County teachers union said Hogan’s order presented the school board with an “impossible situation.”

“Based on studies of high-performing school systems, and from our own educators’ feedback, board members know this calendar falls short of the time that is needed to plan lessons, communicate with parents, assess student progress, and share meaningful feedback,” Jennifer Martin, vice president of the Montgomery County Education Association, said in the prepared statement. “Educators simply will not have enough time to provide the quality of instruction our children need and deserve, but the governor has demonstrated ... that his priorities lie elsewhere.”
Before passing the calendar, board members voted to add a Jan. 25 early release day and expand other early release days to all schools, rather than exempting high schools.

While some proposed calendars included even more partial days for teacher preparation, Smith cautioned against scheduling too many. He expressed concern about the loss of classroom time and said many parents struggle with child care on early release days.

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