POWHATAN – The possibility of shifting the start of the school year forward by up to two weeks has proved to be a hot button issue for Powhatan County Public Schools, but whether there will actually be a change is still up in the air.

Tracie Omohundro, assistant superintendent for instruction, gave an updated presentation to the Powhatan County School Board during its meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 8 about the question of the division’s start date. The school board is considering a staff proposal to start the school year two weeks early, beginning with the 2020-2021 school year.

In July 2019, legislation went into effect that would allow divisions that haven’t already sought a waiver to start their school year up to two weeks prior to Labor Day, Omohundro said. Those divisions that do choose to start early are required to be closed the Friday immediately preceding Labor Day.

The board had previously heard a presentation on the issue at its Aug. 13 meeting but asked for more information and input on the issue, including a survey for parents and students.

The calendar committee, which meets again on Oct. 24, is still reviewing the issue of the potential calendar change and will present the school board with draft calendars reflecting both pre- and post-Labor Day start dates along with recommendations from them and superintendent Eric Jones, Omohundro said.

She added that the calendars will take into account not only the basic school dates and impacts on student testing and extracurricular activities, but other considerations such as summer school, the school cleaning schedule, teacher development time, curriculum writing, and other planning issues.

Survey results

Omohundro said last week that the survey garnered 1,564 responses from middle and high school students, parents and employees, which was a massive increase over the 90 to 158 calendar survey responses received in the last few years.

“Clearly it is something that people are wanting to have input on,” Omohundro said.

While the survey asked several questions, the heart of the issue was whether, based on the information provided by the division, the person taking the survey would consider changing the calendar to begin two weeks before Labor Day and ending two weeks earlier.

Of the 1,564 responses received, 47 percent said yes, 37 percent said no, 13, percent said maybe, and 3 percent had another response.

Omohundro pointed out that the survey received more than 350 written comments, which ran the gamut of responses. Some were simply opposed or in support of the idea. Others raised concerns about vacation, the impact of heat, extracurricular activities, college start times, part-time jobs, holiday breaks, and possible impacts on employee salaries.

Comments questioned how much next summer would be shortened; worried about the lack of air conditioning on buses; asked to end the current school year a week early to compensate for an earlier start next year; advocated for year-round school; voiced concerns about disrupting planned summer vacations; asked for a schedule that aligns with surrounding counties for people who work in those districts; asked to consider a one-week early start date; said the division would be messing with families’ abilities to vacation with off-season rates; and questioned the list of benefits the division said an earlier start would bring.

Pros and cons

During her presentation, Omohundro once again discussed the benefits the staff recognized for both pre- and post-Labor Day start dates.

Some of the benefits for starting earlier included: first semester will end prior to winter break, minimizing multiple transitions after the holidays; dual enrollment calendar will align with PHS calendar; Advanced Placement students will receive two additional weeks of instruction prior to testing; end of school year will be two weeks earlier; not adding additional breaks during the school year; athletic seasons will more closely align with academic calendar; consistency with all contiguous divisions (except Chesterfield - pending their calendar decision); duration of uninterrupted time during first semester (prior to winter break) for stronger academic preparation; similar preparation time for regional and district arts/band competitions, and because 2020-2021 has the latest possible Labor Day, impact on summer break is minimized.

The benefits of leaving the calendar the way it is included: maintains traditional calendar (since late 1980s); access to vacation discounts in late August; availability of established day care and camp programs; time to acclimate to athletics / band during the month of August prior to starting academics; concerns about heat on buses and at recess; maintains the family traditions of vacations; lengthier summer vacation in 2020, and other large divisions (Richmond, Henrico, Hanover) are not starting early in 2020-2021.

Board comments

The school board held a lengthy discussion about the proposed calendar change, with some still questioning it and others showing favorable leanings.

Valarie Ayers, who represents District 3, pointed out that the Chesterfield County School Board is letting the newly elected members make the decision for the division about possibly making a change, which makes it difficult when wanting to know if Powhatan would be aligned with its neighbor.

Rick Cole, District 1, said he was heartened by the high level of survey responses, which showed there will be people ecstatic and angry by the board’s decision no matter what they decide. But what it comes down to is “what we believe is best for the students. We will have to consider that as we go forward.”

“It is change with a capital C and we always tend to hesitate with change. I will be interested to see what the calendar committee recommends after their next meeting,” he said.

Jim Kunka, District 2, said he was surprised that the responses seemed about 50-50 divided on the issue. He saw valid reasons both ways but thought some of the adjustments that would be made in the private sector – with daycare, camps, etc., – will work themselves out. He agreed the decision is about what is best for students academically.

Kim Hymel, District 5, said she has not spoken with anyone in her district that was for the earlier start date. Many felt this is being “pushed on them so quickly,” she said, adding she still doesn’t see the need for the change. She also pointed out that many felt the survey was one-sided.

Jones explained that since the alternative to change means simply staying the same, staff put more emphasis on the impacts of changing and the reasons for it.

“Keeping the status quo, the potential benefits are you keep things as they are, so we didn’t feel the need to list all of those in the survey because people know what they currently do. The question that we thought people would have is why are we even considering this, what are the potential benefits,” Jones said.

A good deal of the discussion revolved around the time around the winter break, including issues such as potentially eliminating mid-term exams at the high school to gain back instruction time and how the two semesters would be divided up. If eliminating the exams is one of the reasons, the division needs to be clear that is what it is doing, Hymel said.

Cole pointed out that the days before winter break aren’t always the most productive, and there is another adjustment period when school starts back up again in the new year. Having a clean break between the semesters, with the fall semester ending before the break, could reclaim some of that time.

When Hymel continued to press about the reasons for changing, Jones said the extra two weeks of instruction before standardized testing and other assessments are the main reason so many lobbied to have the autonomy to make this change.

“Two-thirds of the school divisions in the state have a pre-Labor Day start,” he said.

Chairman Joe Walters, District 4, agreed the General Assembly made the right decision in letting school divisions choose their own start dates but added that it is now up to Powhatan’s board to make a decision about what is best for the county. He added that he is interested to hear the calendar committee’s recommendation and continued input from the community.

Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.

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