New law lets school boards opt to open before Labor Day

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: May 8, 2019 | 12:30 p.m.

PGCPS’ Williams discusses school calendar building and new law’s impacts 

VIRGINIA – Even when in the midst of a school year, planning and developing for the next year’s calendar can sometimes start as early as when the first bell rings in September. But, with a newly signed law in the books, when that bell rings can be changed at the discretion of individual school boards and school systems.

Signed into law late last month by Governor Ralph Northam, local school boards will now have the option to set their school calendars so “the first-day students are required to attend school is no earlier than 14 days before Labor Day,” unless the Virginia Board of Education waives the requirement for “good cause.” This law does not require school divisions to open before Labor Day, but does give the option to do so, which under the current law isn’t allowed unless a waiver has been given by the Virginia Board of Education. 

Talk of changing the Commonwealth’s laws on the topic has been a recurring theme in the General Assembly on a near-yearly basis. Under the current law, Virginia Code Section 22.1-79.1, school boards are required to set their calendars in such a manner that “the first day students are required to attend school shall be after Labor Day,” with the opening for a Virginia Board of Education waiver being present to allow for individual school boards to petition to start school on a different day if “it meets one of the good cause requirements” laid out in state law.

The regulation, which dates back to the mid-1980s, was dubbed the “Kings Dominion Law” referring to the efforts of tourism activists who argued against allowing schools to open prior to Labor Day, saying such a change across the Commonwealth could result in a loss of hundreds of millions in tourism dollars to places like amusement parks and other destinations in the waning days of Summer, when many try to squeeze in a short vacation prior to the Labor Day holiday weekend. 

Last year, bills that sought to remove the post-Labor Day opening requirement made their way through the respective chambers of the General Assembly before ultimately dying. This year, efforts to end the “Kings Dominion Law” were successful as Governor Northam signed the legislation into law on March 18, with it set to take effect on July 1. 

The newly adopted law does offer a caveat to those school divisions who opt to start school prior to Labor Day, with them being required to close the Friday before Labor Day and reopen on the Tuesday after the holiday, giving students a four-day weekend.

In 2018, when several bills with similar language were being pushed through each chamber, documents from the Virginia Department of Education showed over 80 school divisions start their school year at some point during the course of August out of the over 125 school systems in the Commonwealth. 

That information was echoed by Old Dominion University’s Dragas Center for Economic Analysis and Policy when they took an in-depth look at the “Kings Dominion Law” as part of their annual State of the Commonwealth report in 2018. In their detailed review, they found between the 2001-2002 school year and the 2017-2018 school year, the percentage of schools with pre-Labor Day start dates rose from 45 percent to nearly 63 percent. 

In addition, the center found Virginia was one of only a half-dozen states that had a mandated start date in September, while another seven states had mandated starts between August 15-31. The remaining states allowed districts to freely determine start dates.

Through their analysis of student and economic data, the center conceded that arguments for and against the repeal of the “Kings Dominion Law” are strong on both sides but, The Dragas Center said they found “no evidence that revoking this law would harm the Commonwealth,” adding it seems “sensible” to allow local school divisions “to pursue their own pleasure concerning public school start dates,” suggesting a mandated four-day weekend during the Labor Day holiday be made part of future legislation, which was part of the law signed into law in March, in an effort to alleviate economic concerns.

They also found no evidence delayed school openings affected student achievement, saying there were “no discernible empirical differences in test scores between early- and late-opening districts.”

In 2018, the bill garnered a lot of attention as Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia’s largest school division, had decided to start school prior to Labor Day after the school system was granted a waiver by state education officials due to the number of snow days Fairfax County Public Schools had accumulated over the last ten years, one of the several “good cause requirements” laid out in state law.

Those “good cause requirements” can include things such as if, “A school division has been closed an average of eight days per year during any five of the last 10 years because of severe weather conditions, energy shortages, power failures, or other emergency situations,” a school system is providing an “experimental or innovative program which requires an earlier opening date,” or, “A school division is entirely surrounded by a school division that has an opening date prior to Labor Day,” in which case they would be along to open the same day as those other school divisions.

Even though this year’s legislation has been signed into law and is set to take effect on July 1, this will have no impact on many school divisions locally and across the Commonwealth, as most are either nearing or have completed construction of their calendars for the 2019-2020 school year, which is roughly six months away. 

Even still, the new law is something school division leaders have kept an eye on, with Prince George County Public Schools Superintendent Renee Williams saying it was her wish the bill passed without the Labor Day closure caveat.

“We had hoped that the Bill would pass without conditions,” she said in an interview.  “Starting 14 days prior to Labor Day and including the 4-day weekend holiday limits our ability to take advantage of an earlier start to the school year.”

Williams continued, “It was our hope that the change in the Kings Dominion Law would allow us to design the school calendar so that students would end the first semester before the Christmas break, begin the second semester after the break, AND have about the same number of days in each semester.  If we were to use the Christmas break as the dividing point, the first semester would have about 74 days and the second semester 106 days. The school year for students is 180 instructional days.”

She was quick to point out any change to the opening date for schools would require a far reaching conversation, both locally and regionally. For many school divisions, Prince George included, regional program involvement is something that would have to be considered as part of the development of a calendar that has any change to the start day for students. 

In their case and the case for a number of school divisions in Southside Virginia, they send students to regional high schools like the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School in Petersburg, the Maggie Walker Governor’s School in Richmond, and newly formed computer science-oriented high school CODERVA. In addition to regional high schools, vocational training centers like Rowanty Technical Center in Carson educates students from three school divisions – Dinwiddie, Prince George, and Sussex. 

Within ARGS and CODERVA, 14 different school divisions are represented, while MLWGS serves 12 school divisions, meaning a change among one or more of those member school divisions could require a change in the starting date for the regional school itself and wider regional conversations about start dates for surrounding school divisions.  

“We must consider the adjustments that families would have to make regarding such things as planned vacations and child care when determining if the change would be an advantage or disadvantage,” Williams explained. “To open schools before Labor Day would also require adjusting the work and vacation schedules of all members of our maintenance, technology, transportation, food service, and custodial departments.  The timetable for repairs to buildings would need to be adjusted also. 

She elaborated further, “Consideration would be given to professional development activities that are planned throughout the school year. Before a major change like this could be implemented, these are some of the discussions that must be held.” 

The new law will take effect across the Commonwealth on July 1. According to Superintendent Williams, discussions have already begun for the 2020-2021 school calendar with other school divisions within Region 1, which includes the county, and many of its neighbors, but any changes locally would not occur immediately.

“Annually the calendar committee, consisting of teachers, school counselors, administrators and support staff,  looks at options for adjusting the school calendar to accommodate instructional time, professional development, new teacher orientation, holidays, and teacher workdays,” she said. “However, because of the impact of such a change of this magnitude, the School Board would give parents at least a year or possibly two years advance notice to prepare for the change.”

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