As one snow day after another plus the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday resulted in just one school day for our Fairfax County students last week, I found myself not just frustrated, but angry.
I was better off than many parents. I avoided the usual high-stress scrambling for last-minute child care or pleading for teleworking, having recently left my job for self-employment, in no small part due to these issues.
So why couldn’t I enjoy a few days off with my daughter, sledding and sipping hot chocolate over board games? Weren’t these fleeting moments of quality time I wouldn’t get back? Unfortunately, those Hallmark moments were overshadowed by a growing anxiety that she isn’t getting enough education.
That’s right, not enough education. She has good fifth-grade teachers and a solid curriculum, but there simply isn’t enough time spent in school and on schoolwork.
Last week’s one-day school week came as we were facing this week’s three-day school week when students are off Thursday and Friday for two of FCPS’s five scheduled “teacher work days.” (FCPS rescinded the fifth such day off in April, as well as the Presidents’ Day holiday as make-up snow days.) For working parents who had to stay home, those six days off this month puts a huge dent in the typical 10- to 15-day annual leave.
In fairness, most of the area’s public school districts have as many snow days and teacher workdays. Where Fairfax County goes beyond the pale is its half-day Mondays for elementary school students. This decades-old practice of giving K-sixth-grade students a four-hour school day once a week instead of the usual 6.5-hour day comes as a shock to newcomers, but is quietly accepted by long-term residents as “teacher planning time.”
Because the students are in school long enough for lunch, those half-days — like early-release days due to weather — are counted as full instructional days, allowing the county to meet the state’s 180-day minimum school days requirement, even though it means some 80 hours less of instructional time for elementary students. Is it any wonder why parents and teachers question why so many students lack a solid foundation in core subjects? Meanwhile, parents struggle not only to figure out their employment issues, but also how to fill a whole afternoon each week for their child with something other than TV and video games. I refer to these at Battle Mondays, where my pre-teen and I go head-to-head over academic work doled out by me, rather than her teachers.
FCPS touts itself as one of the best public school districts in the nation. The county has an abundance of programs, extra-curricular and course offerings, particularly at the high school level, and the latest technology in well-maintained buildings. It shines in many ways. For the highly self-motivated, there are endless opportunities. But is that most kids? And what about those too young to worry about college applications?
The Fairfax County School Board has debated for years whether students would perform better with later start times. Perhaps the overriding question should not be what time they start, but how long they go. As it stands, many of our middle and high school students are out of school by 2:15. Again, for all but the most self-motivated who load up on honors courses and extra-curricular activities, that is a lot of downtime.
Soon we parents will be trying to figure out what to do with our kids for the long summer break. There is no question that ten consecutive weeks off in the summer sets students back in the fall semester, yet the county has offered almost nothing in the way of academic enrichment in the summer, even requiring middle and high school students who fail a course to double up on academic subjects during the next school year. So, for example, a ninth grader who fails Algebra I will take Algebra I and Geometry simultaneously in the next school year.
Add to that increasing state requirements — the new personal finance and online classes must be taken as electives, as well as foreign languages — and it’s easy to see that we have outgrown the nine-month, 6.5 hour school day.
As the School Board spends the next several weeks hashing out next year’s budget, our representatives should focus on giving our kids more time in school: lengthen the school day or the school year; give summer school options and charge those of us who can pay; end half-day Mondays; build snow days into the calendar; and allow for excused absences for those who can’t get there due to weather, rather than closing to everyone.
In short, send the message that school is important and should be the focal point of children’s lives. Our kids can do more, if only they were expected to.
Lisa Daniel, Fairfax