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School holidays offer welcome breaks. But crafting school calendars is no easy task
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With students returning to school today, it’s a reminder that the holiday season presents some scheduling challenges for local districts as they aim to keep students and teachers engaged between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

And as the fall semester comes to a close this year, local school officials are thinking longer and harder about the school calendar.

“This time of year is unique for students as they are often having to balance school against an increased social calendar,” said Jared Belew, principal of Spout Springs School of Enrichment in South Hall County. “By having flexibility at the local level, school districts can create a time structure that helps alleviate some of these additional, potential stressors that may impact a student’s overall educational success.”

School calendars have generated more interest since a state Senate study committee was launched this fall to evaluate how a uniform shift to a later start date for schools across Georgia would impact students and families; the interests of local school districts; and regional economies that depend on the tourism and hospitality industries.

The 11-member committee will report its findings in December.

Officials with Hall County and Gainesville school systems have expressed their desire to retain independent flexibility to create school calendars that fit their needs. But this amounts to a variation on a theme.

“There will always be a variety of opinion on school calendars, and the current flexibility allows school districts to consider the needs and opinions of their local communities,” said Ley Hathcock, principal of West Hall High School.

For Hall Superintendent Will Schofield, moving toward a “year-round” schedule is most desirable, particularly as a way to ensure low-income students, and others facing unique educational hardships, are kept in the fold.

“What flexibility currently does,” Schofield added, “is allow local districts to find what works best for the community. We talk a lot about autonomy and schools belonging to their communities. I happen to believe that, and I think school calendars should be designed to meet the needs of a majority of the families served.”

Gainesville Superintendent Jeremy Williams said the weeks between eating turkey and unwrapping gifts is crunch time. But it could be worse if the school start date were pushed past Labor Day, as some state lawmakers have suggested doing.

For example, at the high school level, Williams said, “the majority of students are taking final exams or the Milestones Assessment in these next few weeks. That could be pushed back or interrupted if the state mandates calendar changes.

Moreover, Williams said, “Our assessment calendar at (kindergarten through eighth grade) allows the mid-year data to drive decisions and make adjustments for the second semester. We use the breaks in the school calendar to ensure that we regroup and target remediation and enrichment opportunities.”

Changes to school calendars could also affect the length and opportunities the Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks provide.

“The break around Thanksgiving accommodates family needs and plans such that students don’t incur absences, missing valuable instructional days during this time,” Hathcock said. “As importantly, it provides students and staff with a brief respite before coming back to finish the semester strong.

“Many of our students take a portion of the break to study, prepare for the semester’s end or work on school-related projects. High school seniors often take advantage of the time to work on college applications and essays. Many high school programs involve service-learning opportunities outside of school, and I can think of no better time of year than Thanksgiving for students to engage in service projects in our community.”

Hathcock said he believes the current calendar has been effectively developed in response to the “needs of our students, their families and our employees.”

“I would imagine that engagement just before the winter break might be even more of a challenge were it not for the break around Thanksgiving providing students and teachers the opportunity for a brief recharge in order to finish strong,” he added.

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