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Classroom duties and quality education

Fairfax County’s next contentious School Board battle will likely involve how many hours the county’s 80,000-plus elementary students spend in class each Monday.

At the moment, students in kindergarten through sixth grade attend half-days on Mondays with the second half of the day given to teachers for lesson planning and in-house training.

Nothing in the schedule has changed, but School Board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) set off a few alarm bells last week when she broached the subject of returning to a full-day schedule.

“How do we establish full-day Mondays and solve the planning issue at the same time?” Schultz asked her colleagues, at least two of whom agreed that it’s time to revisit the historically contentious issue. “It’s a problem that I think has persisted for too long and it needs to be resolved sooner rather than later. We need to do it. It’s good for kids. It’s good for parents. It’s good for working parents.”

Perhaps, but is it good for teachers?

One would be hard pressed to find a fourth-grade teacher who’s eager to give back three hours in a schedule where every extra minute is cherished.

In addition to teaching basic punctuation, multiplication and science, teachers in Fairfax County are dealing with dozens of other tasks that don’t register on most of our radar screens. New state-mandated teacher evaluation and certification requirements, training for initiatives at the local level, and changes to standardized testing are just a few items that have added to teacher workloads during the past year.

Every educational initiative that comes down the pike usually requires weeks — if not months — of training. Transitioning to online textbooks doesn’t happen overnight. Mastering a new-fangled grading system that triples the time needed to fill out a report card isn’t easy, either.

We won’t even get into the fact that the average elementary school classroom in Fairfax has four or five more students than it did a generation ago. Each of those new faces probably takes at least five additional minutes out of a teacher’s average day.

So how does the school system improve elementary education without burning out half its teaching staff?

Slowly and pragmatically.

The full-day Monday debate has been brewing for nearly a decade and won’t be resolved in 15 or 20 minutes. In one corner sit working parents whose schedules (and wallets) are turned upside-down each Monday while their counterparts in Arlington, Loudoun and Prince William counties send their kids to school for five full days. Some question whether the current schedule places their children at a competitive disadvantage.

To frame things properly, it’s important to dispel the myth that Fairfax students and teachers spend fewer hours in class than their peers across the region. In fact, instructional school days were lengthened by half an hour four days a week so that the teachers could have their planning and training time on Mondays.

Fortunately, last week’s School Board discussion struck a tone that was both measured and inclusive. Even those supporting the full-day option agreed that it’s a multi-layered issue that demands a lot of research, healthy debate, and the community’s full engagement.

The reality is that Fairfax County teachers haven’t had much to smile about lately. During a town hall meeting with School Board members in February, dozens of teachers vented about increased paperwork, long hours and declining morale.

Removing a three-hour block of planning time won’t do much to resolve those issues.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with reviewing the issue and asking a lot of questions. Do shorter Mondays affect student performance? Are teachers maximizing their time on Monday afternoons? Does the schedule place too much pressure on working families? The list goes on.

If the current setup isn’t working for students, teachers and parents, identify the problems and make changes.

If it is, move on to bigger challenges. There’s certainly no shortage of those in Fairfax County.