POWHATAN – The Powhatan County School Board last week voted 3-2 in favor of adopting a calendar for the 2020-2021 school year with a pre-Labor Day start.

The decision at the board’s meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 14 marked the end of a months-long discussion that involved the school board, staff, parents, and students.

The board’s decision means the first day of the 2020-2021 school year will be Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. The fall semester will finish on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020, before the Winter Break. When schools start back on Jan. 4, 2021, it will be the start of a new marking period and a new semester. The school year will finish on June 4, 2021.

Chairman Joe Walters, who represents District 4, Rick Cole, District 1, and Valarie Ayers, District 3, voted in favor of adopting the pre-Labor Day start calendar. Susan Smith, District 2, and Kim Hymel, District 5, voted against it.

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. Those divisions that do choose to start early are required to be closed the Friday immediately preceding Labor Day.

The decision by the board came after months of discussion, two school district surveys, input from the division’s calendar committee, and four presentations to the school board, said Dr. Eric Jones, superintendent. His recommendation from the staff was for the board to adopt a pre-Labor Day start because of instructional benefits to students and teachers.

During its presentations, the division has presented numerous ways the earlier start would be a benefit. Starting two weeks early allows additional instruction for students completing regional and national assessments in the Spring each year. It also enables the school division to complete the first semester prior to Winter Break, which is a more natural stopping point and will result in a more efficient start for instruction in January. The move provides consistency with all contiguous divisions except Chesterfield County.

The dual enrollment calendar will align with the calendar for Powhatan High School. Advanced Placement students will receive two additional weeks of instruction prior to testing. The end of the school year will be two weeks earlier; not adding additional breaks during the school year. Athletic seasons will be more closely aligned with the academic calendar while there will be similar preparation time for regional and district arts/band competitions.

It was also stressed all along that because 2020-2021 has the latest possible Labor Day, Sept. 7, the impact on summer break will be minimized in a way it won’t be in the following summer.

Board response

Before the vote, Ayers made it clear she was going to support the calendar with the earlier start date “because it has been my commitment in serving on the school board to do what is best for our students.” She said she made the decision after reviewing all of the data from the staff, calendar committee, and the two surveys conducted by the division.

Ayers pointed out that the Virginia School Boards Association fought for at least 10 years to give school divisions the freedom to decide on their start dates and the legislature finally voted to give the divisions that choice.

Walters didn’t state his intention early on, talking instead about the work that went into the decision and commending all of the people who helped and the community involvement.

Although she doesn’t get a vote, the board allowed school liaison Haley Timberlake to share her opinion, which was also in favor of the pre-Labor Day start. She spoke about the extra time Advanced Placement students will have for instruction.

Cole agreed with Ayers that his decision was based on doing what was best for Powhatan students while recognizing it might not be best for all students.

“Is it best for 100 percent? No. Nothing we do is going to be best for 100 percent. But I think it is best for the majority of our students,” Cole said. “Being able to wrap up first semester before Christmas and have a legitimate first semester that is full length and get those examinations and grades done before students go home for Christmas and teachers can have that behind them. To take that break and come back and start on the second semester after Christmas, to me, makes a lot of sense structurally and it makes a lot of sense administratively.”

About 40 percent of the high school’s students are involved in fall activities, many of which have the students coming before school starts for practices or rehearsals, Cole pointed out.

He added that what influenced him the most was talking with people in the community who actually weren’t personally happy about starting the school year earlier but still supported the idea after they looked at the data and were asked to make an objective decision.

“That influenced me a lot because anybody can have an opinion, but I do value your opinion more when you have done the study and done the background and have the good knowledge base upon which to make that decision,” he said.

Hymel said she had given the issue a lot of thought and talked to many constituents and felt she was doing what was best for students by voting against a pre-Labor Day start. She added she might vote for it in the future but not this year.

“I will not be voting for this because they feel it has been pushed too quickly and it is a done deal before it even started,” she said.

While acknowledging she was coming late to the issue as a new board member, Smith agreed that in talking with her constituents in District 2 she was hearing a “mixed bag of comments.” She said she personally is inclined toward an earlier start, but it being her first vote since taking office, she decided to “vote in the manner that I feel like the people who put me in this chair want me to vote.”

“They feel like it is a done deal before the vote is ever taken, which was surprising to me. I tried to explain to them I didn’t think that was how it was really designed to be. It may be the impression they received, but I will not support this calendar for pre-Labor Day start,” Smith said.

Ayers then spoke again saying it felt insulting for people to say this was a “done deal.”

“In my mind, it was not. I looked at the information; I researched the information. I chose to look at the positives and the negatives. I read all of the comments from the people,” she said. “I don’t think anything we do is a done deal before we do the research involved and make a decision that is best for the students.”

Conflicts

an all division message Jones sent out, he addressed one of the most common complaints about the earlier start – conflicts with family vacation plans. Parents were instructed to contact their principals if they had previously scheduled vacation plans that conflict with the beginning of the next school year. 

Jones said he spoke with some of the principals and heard they had “minimal” response to the news, mainly having to do with previously scheduled trips.

The school district created a document addressing frequently asked questions related to the calendar change. According to the document, the school district will utilize the same process for absence requests as the school handbook utilizes. Administrators will excuse absences for Aug. 24 to Sept. 3 during this transition year. Students will be allowed to make up work. This will be in effect for this transition year.

In response to one of the other common complaints about the impact on athletics and show choir/band, athletics will follow the same schedule as previous years, according to the FAQ document. They will not start practices any earlier and will continue to follow VHSL guidelines. Music programs will make accommodations for evening camps during teacher work week so they will not need to start any earlier than previous years.

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

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