NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Changing this year’s traditional school calendar just became less likely.
The New Hanover County Schools calendar committee, made up of teachers, principals, parents and one student, voted Wednesday to stick with the current 2021-2022 schedule.
17 to 10 favored the current calendar, which places the end of the first semester on Jan. 20. Committee members and the school board had been in discussions over the last month to change the first semester’s end date to December, rather than January.
The recommendation on Wednesday will not be finalized unless the school board votes to approve it at Oct. 4 meeting.
Some school community members chafed at ending the semester after the 12-day winter break, due to concerns over student learning retention and synchronicity with college dual-enrollment schedules and Advanced Placement exams — issues mostly affecting high school students.
In recent meetings, school board members claimed the calendar they unanimously voted for on Dec. 7, 2021, did not represent the intentions of last year’s calendar committee (a different cohort than current members). At the beginning of calendar discussions last year, the committee was mostly in favor of ending the first semester in December, but by its fourth and final meeting on Nov. 10, 2021, the committee unanimously voted to approve ending the first semester in January, after the holiday break.
The school board decided to revisit the calendar a week into the school year on Sept. 6 due to public outcry. Teachers and parents worried their students would not do well on exams after a hiatus and their schedules would be out of sync with college classes. Members voted to return the decision to the calendar committee at a special meeting Sept. 16.
The board said condensing the semester in order to test before the holiday break would reduce teacher workdays, some which are allocated for elementary LETRS literacy training. Around 800 teachers are required to participate. If the training occurred on an instructional day, versus a workday, $560,000 worth of substitutes would need to be hired by the district, and that money has already been allocated to other literacy materials.
On Wednesday, opinions were mostly split down school-level lines; many elementary school representatives advocated against changing the calendar, while high school representatives desired a December end date.
A high school representative noted the extra time in January wouldn’t add much benefit, since the two weeks in the first semester would be devoted to reviewing information students already know.
Some argued a disruption to current pacing would have significant negative impacts, with an elementary representative claiming 50% of people he spoke to said a change in the schedule would be disruptive to their current plans.
Multiple members noted changing the calendar would not be asking for flexibility beyond situations the district has already faced, such as Hurricane Florence and the Covid-19 pandemic that required tremendous academic pivots.
The sole student on the committee in favor of changing the calendar explained instructional time won’t be optimized around the holiday break and students would instead be given busywork instead of preparing for exams.
Still, members’ comments suggested it was too late for the district to balance the needs of both sides due to the constraints of state law and waning flexibility in changing the calendar mid-semester.
The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction requires schools to have a minimum of 185 days or 1,025 hours of instruction, and those hours must be universally applied to every school in the district — so elementary schools and high schools must have same schedule.
NCDPI also mandates the school year cannot start before the Monday closest to Aug. 26. Depending on where that Monday falls each year determines if the district must operate with plus or minus one week in the year.
School board member Nelson Beaulieu took the opportunity to advocate for making the public’s opinion heard to North Carolina legislators.
“We need that flexibility,” Beaulieu said. “So what I need you guys to do is get on the phone with your state legislator, advocate for change like we did here, and call all your friends across the state of North Carolina.”
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at email@example.com