When a plane crashed into power lines in Gaithersburg at the end of Thanksgiving weekend, parents braced for the message that came hours later from MCPS: schools would be closed on November 28. It was the sixth consecutive day of no school. Perhaps even more astonishing, it was the eighth weekday in November with less than a full day of school:
Monday, November 7: schools closed
Tuesday, November 8: school closed
Monday, November 21: early release
Tuesday, November 22: early release
Wednesday, November 23: schools closed
Thursday, November 24: schools closed
Friday, November 25: schools closed
Lest we think November was an outlier, this timeline followed four closures and two early release days in September and October combined. There was another early release day this past week. Not to mention a four-day week leading into winter break to end calendar year 2022 and another four-day week as we start 2023.
Aside from the plane crash, of course, all of these national holidays, religious observances and professional development days are built into the school calendar. But even with advance warning, such a schedule wreaks havoc on working families — especially those who do not have the luxury of working from home or accessible childcare — and does not serve the best interests of students still suffering the consequences of so much lost in-person school time during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the parent of two MCPS students, here are three suggestions for improvement:
- School officials should work with the teachers’ union to limit the number of days when schools are closed for professional development and grading, or when schools are let out early. There are 12 such days on the 2022-23 calendar; that’s too many. Yet, the calendar for the 2023-24 school year contains even more. I deeply respect our teachers and appreciate the need to plan lessons, especially when curricula change. But we should no longer ask our kids to balance those needs on their backs. Finding a way to make room for professional development and grading without interfering with student instruction time is long overdue.
- The Montgomery County Recreation Department should build on the Kids’ Day Out program. The county and school district should be commended for working together to provide supervised activity options at a variety of locations countywide and doing so at no charge to MCPS elementary school students. Currently, that program is offered on professional development days. It should be expanded to early release days as well. Free programs for older students, particularly those with special needs, should be considered as well. The county could also financially incentivize those in the substitute teacher pool and other adults to participate, which could potentially expand the program to more locations.
- Local policymakers should expand the county’s paid leave policy so that on closure or early release days, no parents or caregivers are forced to choose between getting a paycheck and ensuring care for their kids. Under a 2016 law, people who work in Montgomery County are guaranteed up to seven days of paid leave. That’s more generous than Maryland’s law, which only guarantees up to five. But the Council should make the law more generous by expanding the minimum number of guaranteed paid leave days, eliminating loopholes that allow small employers to make a significant portion of the leave period unpaid, and removing the provision that gives employers the right to block new employees from taking paid leave during their first few months on the job .
As the past few years have shown, the value of even one in-person school day to a child’s physical, mental, social and academic well-being — not to mention to a working family’s ability to earn a living — cannot be overstated. It is incumbent upon our leaders to reflect that mindset. A school calendar that provides more certainty and less chaos would be a good place to start.
Adam Zimmerman is a communications and public relations consultant in Rockville.
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