School in mid-August? Sweat just to think of it


August 30, 1998|By Mike Burns

YOU COULD tell it was time for school to start a week ago.

Temperatures and humidity were at their highest, inducing the inevitable refractory somnolence in many a classroom. The Maryland State Fair was still a week away. Traditionalists who looked to the Labor Day picnic as the end of summer vacation were derided as old fogies.

The lack of summertime cooling and ventilation was a problem in some schools. It's largely a matter of when the schools were built, because the previously prevailing philosophy was that school started in September and ended in June, thus avoiding the brutal weather of July and August.

That's been turned around by the Carroll County school board, and by other boards throughout Maryland.

Their rationale is typically that educators prefer to end the year as close to Memorial Day as possible. Students don't want to learn in the balmy, rain-cooled early weeks of June, it is explained. They learn better in the sultry sauna of August.

August better than June?

The weather is always changing, no doubt. But the typical experience in Central Maryland is that August is more wearisome than early June. Especially in closed buildings without air conditioning. So it is hard to understand why students would be indisposed to learning in June, but not in August, when the major expectation of the student body is the imminent Labor Day holiday.

Certainly, when the first Monday in September falls on the latest possible date, as it does this year, it may be advisable to move up the school opening date.

The first few days of a new school year may be used effectively for adjusting to new routines, changing supply lists, new classmates, new textbooks, new bus routes, even a new school building.

But there's no need for two full weeks of this before Labor Day.

Another argument advanced in favor of early school opening maintains that it is less disruptive to family vacations, both for teachers and pupils.

The summer jobs argument

For some high school kids, it may help them get summer jobs before students get out of school in other districts. And in a year with too many snow-day cancellations, there's a better chance to add days in early June than in late June.

These arguments don't hold water either.

Maryland counties make independent decisions on when to begin the school year, and they vary considerably, even within the Baltimore metro region. Employees and pupils in the different counties make vacation plans that do not coincide with each other. Spring vacation and winter vacation schedules also vary, which can negate the purported benefits of an early school-year start.

As far as the summer job competition, many of those positions are being filled by college students who get out of classes much earlier than students in the Maryland public schools. And as more school boards respond to that argument, any supposed advantage of early availability of working youths disappears.

What of families who pay for swim club admissions and memberships and find that their children miss the two good, hot weeks before Labor Day in the pool. Labor Day continues to be the season-closing date of most such outdoor facilities. The family who prefers a late-summer vacation is similarly disadvantaged.

Worse in Baltimore County

Things could be worse. In Baltimore County, a family with three children in the public schools can face three different starting days for full classes -- and for the important transportation. That staggered system wreaks even more havoc with family and day-care schedules.

We haven't even gotten to the long-standing State Fair case against early school opening.

The State Fair is always held the week leading to Labor Day. Consistent with the nature of a state fair, the emphasis is on agriculture. Children in 4-H and FFA avidly compete to show their animals, foods and other exhibits. Many sleep with their animals at the fairgrounds until the judging.

Unfair to State Fair

In Carroll, with its strong farming community, the fair competitions should be a highlight of the summer. Instead, a fair contest is an excused school absence.

But that's not a satisfactory resolution, if the school system requires other children to attend classes on those days.

If the first days of school are less rigorous in education, then dispense with them for all students.

If these first days are important, then they should be mandatory for all. And that means beginning the school year at a later date, when every pupil attends.

School systems must assure that their calendars meet the state requirement for 180 days of instruction. But that can be achieved a variety of ways.

The idea persists that an early start implies an advantage, a jump on the competition, a time savings. But that's not always true, in school or in real life.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 8/30/98

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