Instead of moving up the first day of the 2016-2017 school year, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) on Monday decided to move a school day to the first day of an annual three-day teacher convention.
The county’s Board of Education finalized the 2016-2017 school calendar, its second attempt at doing so after six members of the eight-member board voted in November to make Sept. 12, 2016—the potential day of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha—a teacher professional day so students wouldn’t have classes.
“I think this is, in my words, a more reasonable recommendation,” said board member Chris Barclay, who led the push in November to move the professional day to Sept. 12. “And it is important for us, given the environment that we are seeing these days in this country, that it’s clear that we need to exercise a level of tolerance, and I think this calendar reflects that.”
After the November vote, which came after years of advocacy from Muslims in the county, MCPS Interim Superintendent Larry Bowers returned in early December with a proposal to move the first day of the school year up three days in order to accommodate the teacher professional day on Sept. 12, 2016.
That proposal quickly garnered criticism from some parents who pointed to summer plans that would have to be cancelled. The Board of Education delayed its vote on the proposal, which was scheduled for last week’s regular meeting.
Bowers came back with a second proposal that was approved in a special Board of Education meeting Monday.
It will add a school day to Friday, Oct. 21, 2016, the first day of the annual Maryland State Education Association’s annual convention in Ocean City. Bowers said the school system and other school systems around the state have traditionally closed schools on the first day of the conference to allow teachers to attend.
In 2016, teachers who choose to attend the convention instead of reporting to school will be granted professional leave. MCPS Chief Operating Officer Andrew Zuckerman said 250 staff members from the school system are expected to attend the conference, which would result in more than $36,000 in additional costs for substitute teachers.
The move will also mean additional costs of another $206,000 because the newly added school day comes after a pay increase scheduled for teachers in September 2016.
The decision Monday reopened the Board of Education’s initial debate on moving a teacher professional day—on which students don’t have school but teachers do professional development work—to Monday, Sept. 12 to accommodate Muslim students.
Approved 2016-2017 MCPS school calendar, via MCPS?
That day could end up being Eid al-Adha, during which Muslims hold a feast to celebrate the prophet Abraham and mark the end of the Hajj pilgrimage. Because of disagreements over how to calculate the first day of the month in the lunar-based Islamic calendar, it’s sometimes not clear exactly which day the holiday will fall on in different regions around the world. The state’s school calendar has Eid al-Adha as Sunday, Sept. 11.
“We don’t know that Eid falls on Sept. 12 and it’s more likely than not that Eid will fall on Sept. 11,” board member Phil Kauffman said Monday. Kauffman and board member Patricia O’Neill were the two members to vote against moving the professional day to Sept. 12.
“We’re doing a lot of gyrations around a day that Eid probably will not fall on,” said Kauffman, who also pointed to Hindu groups that since the November vote have started requesting that MCPS close on the holiday of Diwali.
MCPS has said it cannot legally close school on religious holidays unless enough teachers or students will be absent to create operational issues. The school system has long closed schools for the first day of the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
“I think the message that went out was that we’re now closing for religious holidays, even if we’re doing it with a professional day,” Kauffman said. “I imagine we’ll be hearing requests for closing on the Lunar New Year in the future.”
While Bowers pulled back on his proposal to move the first day of school from Monday, Aug. 29, 2016 to Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016, he said that in the future MCPS should consider starting school two weeks before Labor Day.
“Students have been in favor of starting school earlier as it allows for additional instructional time before Advanced Placement exams in the spring, and many school districts in the state of Maryland have moved to beginning school two weeks before Labor Day to allow for more instructional time in advance of spring exams,” Bowers wrote in a memo to the Board of Education.
“This is something that I believe MCPS should do in the future; however, we will need to ensure enough lead time for families to prepare for this change by communicating the start of school for the following school year earlier than in the past,” Bowers continued.
This school year, 14 of the state’s 24 school districts started school a week earlier than MCPS did.