Parents throughout the southeast are becoming outraged as their children’s school districts add extra days off to help teachers cope with stress and anxiety.
Following lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic, school systems nationwide are experiencing teacher shortages, with many having to fill-in for their colleagues on their breaks.
At the same time, students need more help from the teachers, after facing a year of virtual learning, and school districts nationwide are constantly having to adjust their masking, quarantine, testing and vaccination vaccination requirements.
As a result, a number of school districts in the southeastern United States are adding more half days to their calendars, or are extending holiday breaks by a day or more.
But parents in these districts claim that the students are losing out on valuable education time, after facing 18 months of virtual learning, when standards decreased nationwide.
They say districts should instead focus on getting more substitute teachers, increase the pay of the teachers they already have and reduce the burden of new curriculum and initiatives.
Schools throughout the Southeast are adding more half days to their calendars, or are extending holiday breaks by a day or more to help teachers cope with the stress of the school year. Mrs. Keyona Moxey is seen here with her third-grade class at Warner Arts Magnet Elementary School in Nashville, Tennessee
Education officials say students require more help from the teachers, after facing a year of virtual learning. Joy Harrison was seen helping her second-graders at Carl B. Munck Elementary School in Oakland, California
The trend of adding more time for teachers to focus on mental health caught on in early November when many districts in the southeast opted to create a long weekend by canceling school on November 12, the Friday after Veterans Day, according to Burbio, a data company that monitors school closures.
Its data shows that the announcement of school closures accelerated in the middle of the month, as many districts decided to cancel classes for the entire week of Thanksgiving.
‘The volume was really high, really quick,’ Burbio President Dennis Roche told the Wall Street Journal.
He said the company has recorded at least 3,145 school closures nationwide for mental health needs so far this year, mainly in North Carolina, Virginia and Missouri.
That represents more than one-third of the 8,692 closures so far this year, which have mainly been for quarantining or staffing reasons.
The Detroit school system, for example, announced on November 17 there would be virtual instruction on three Fridays in December, with Superintendent Nikolai P. Vitti citing the ‘concerns of school-based leaders, teachers, support staff, student and families regarding the need for mental health relief.’
DC’s largest charter network, KIPP DC, also converted the Friday after Veterans Day into a staff and student wellness day with no instruction.
And in New Bern, North Carolina, Craven County Schools Superintendent Wendy Miller cited mental health concerns in canceling school on November 12 and asking students and staff to do something kind for themselves or others.
She told the Journal she has been in classrooms every week this fall and watched teachers struggle to help their students catch up academically while also teaching basic skills, which she said are lacking after 18 months of little in-person interaction.
‘It’s been a challenge to come back after 18 months,’ Miller said.
School officials have also had to deal with changes to mask, testing, quarantine and vaccination requirements. Henry County Board of Education Chair Holly Cobb was seen talking to students at Tussahaw Elementary School in Georgia in August
Some school districts are now shortening their days, like the Suffolk Public Schools in Virginia, which is shortening every other Wednesday to help take pressure off of its teachers.
And in Maryland, at least six school districts have remade their calendars to add more early release days, the Washington Post reports.
Howard County schools shortened the hours of six days of instruction, while Prince George’s, Montgomery and Baltimore counties reduced the hours of three days or more.
But the school boards’ decisions to reduce the hours of instruction have left some parents reeling, with Carol Vidal, a Baltimore County parent who testified against the shift, telling state officials that the trend seemed at odd with the state’s requirement that each school district provide 180 days of in-person learning.
Under Maryland law, the Post reports, half-days do not affect the 180 day requirement, though school districts must also meet state requirements for total hours of instruction.
‘Instruction time is really important,’ Vidal said, noting: ‘They said we were going to be catching up this year.
‘[But] instead of finding other creative solutions, the first thing they do is close school.’
Some school districts have converted days into a staff and student wellness day with no instruction. Fifth-graders wearing face masks were pictured last May social distancing
The issue has come to a head in the Montgomery County school system in Maryland, where district officials designated three days for early dismissal in January, March and May.
They say the total number of hours of instruction for school this year will exceed state requirements, and cited the need for teacher professional development and planning time.
Jennifer Martin, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, the 14,000-member teachers union, said the early release is ‘desperately needed.’
‘It’s an important step to improving morale and giving teachers the space they need in order to prepare for students and give them an excellent education.’
Student board member Hana O’Looney said the shorter days would also give students a break, noting: ‘We talk so much about mental health.
‘When you give students a chance to rest and recharge, they can come back to the classroom stronger, more motivated, more ready to do work.’
Some parents and school board members have said the students will not be missing out on a lot of class time as a result of the policy, just less than nine hours.
But school board member Lynne Harris said the change needs to be examined more carefully.
‘We are looking to take action that has a direct impact on parents and guardians and caregivers and their professional obligations – and many of those people for the past 21 months have been front-lining it, whether they work in the ER at Holy Cross or the [checkout] line at the Giant.’
The issue also hit a nerve with some parents because the district was slower to reopen than most in Maryland, the Post reports, with some saying they do not want their children to lose more time of instruction – pointing to district data showing declines in math and literacy in September.
‘I do think teachers are stressed, but I don’t think three half days is going to solve it,’ said Nikki Gillum Posnack, a mother of two. She added that ‘half days are a joke,’ noting: ‘It’s not just nine hours were losing. We’re losing three days.’
Cynthia Simonson, president of the Montgomery Council of PTAs, said families with young children are especially frustrated by the move.
‘Half days are notoriously lost days for instruction and create challenges with regard to child care,’ she said.
The district, for its part, has said it will work with community organizations on after-school options for the half days.
The issue of school closures for mental health has come to a head at the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland (pictured), where parents argue their children need more instruction as they struggle to find after-school care when their children are dismissed early
The district is also adding seven full days off during the winter and spring breaks for year-round employees, many of whom work in administrative and support systems.
In the past, if these employees wanted time off, they would request vacation time.
Montgomery School District officials said the total cost of the closures will be about $850,000, but did not detail what the cost would entail.
They said, however, they expect the closures to ‘yield a refreshed staff with additional time to coordinate learning in our schools.’