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Battle over when to start school in Georgia begins again

Call it the calendar conundrum.

The great date debate, the fray over Labor Day: When should school start?

For some, August is sacrosanct — a month made for family vacations, summer jobs and books on the beach. Others are just fine with the early August start date favored by many metro Atlanta districts. September is too late to resume classroom instruction, they say.

A state Senate study committee has reignited an old fight by convening to determine if it’s feasible to start school later. The group plans to travel around Georgia to hear from constituents, weigh education and economic interests, and report its findings by Dec. 1.

“It’s a hot issue,” said Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, who will lead the committee. “I’m not necessarily saying that we need to create a longer summer, but we just want to restore the summer.”

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Battle lines already have formed.

On one side, tourism leaders tout the importance of summer to their industry. Students fill needed part-time jobs, and family trips keep Georgia’s economy ticking. The Georgia Travel Association supports “sensible guidelines to create a more uniform school start date.”

On the other side, some districts and their elected boards worry about the potential loss of local control over a decision as fundamental as when to start school.

“We’ve always opposed the efforts to make this a state decision,” said Angela Palm, the Georgia School Boards Association’s policy and legislative services director. “Every time this proposal has come up it’s been related to economic development and tourism, it’s not been related to education.”

State lawmakers have convened a study committee to determine if school start dates should be after Labor Day. Gwinnett County Public Schools say that choice should be left up to the individual districts. AJC file photo

And then there are the parents.

Passionate: “I really believe that the summer here in Georgia is Memorial Day to Labor Day. Students should have the full three months off,” said Gwinnett parent Fenton Gardner. “I just feel like the summer sort of flies by.”

Emphatic: “The kids need to enjoy August,” said DeKalb County parent Veny Aleksandrov, who said it’s a struggle to coordinate family vacations with out-of-state relatives.

And divided: “The minute we hear the threat of snow we shut down … if we start after Labor Day then what happens if we lose several days for snow and ice? Do we push it into June?” asked Veronica Johnson, whose children attend a Norcross charter school. “Leave it as it is.”

At many Georgia schools, the calendar keeps creeping earlier and earlier, Gooch said. He’s thinking about everything from how much districts spend to air condition schools to how tough it is for resorts and tourist attractions to hire students when they have to go back to school during the prime months of July and August.

This year, a span of more than a month separated the start dates for Georgia’s 180 districts.

The two earliest districts — Ben Hill County and Terrell County — began July 26. The two latest districts — Webster County and Murray County — were the only ones to start after Labor Day, on Sept. 4.

The most popular start time for districts, including many in metro Atlanta, is during the first week of August.

Some experts have advocated for a “balanced calendar” that shortens the summer break but adds more vacation days throughout the school year in an attempt to combat summertime learning loss experienced by students, particularly those from poorer families.

Atlanta Public Schools started Aug. 1 this year, but the board gave tentative approval to move the date to Aug. 12 next year after hearing from parents, teachers, and students. The new schedule shaves a few days off fall and winter breaks and still ends school before Memorial Day in May.

Any proposal that mandates a statewide start time would face opposition.

Clayton and Gwinnett school officials said local districts should set their own calendars.

A required start time “does not take into account the differing needs” of communities, said a statement released by Clayton County Public Schools: “… (T)he decision must be approached with critical thinking and made with an understanding of all possible variables, unintended consequences and repercussions.”

If the back-to-school duel feels like déjà vu, it’s because Georgia has been here before.

A state House subcommittee in 2005 rejected legislation that would have required school districts to schedule the first day of school between Aug. 29 and Sept. 7.

At the time, both then-Gov. Sonny Perdue and the state school superintendent said local districts should decide when school begins.

This time, both Georgia’s school superintendent Richard Woods and his November election opponent Otha Thornton said they don’t support a mandated statewide start date.

“I believe districts should continue to have the flexibility to set their calendars based on the best interests of their students and communities,” Woods said, in a written statement.

Thornton said that while he doesn’t favor a mandate, it would “work better” for budgets and testing schedules if all schools started at the same time.

Gooch doesn’t want “to take away total local control” and said school districts still should decide how many days off to schedule at Thanksgiving and other holidays.

Only about a dozen states mandate when school must begin, according to the Education Commission of the States. In Michigan, school starts until after Labor Day (and, tourism leaders hope, after families squeeze in one last trip) unless a district gets a waiver.

But tourism shouldn’t take precedence over education, said Decatur parent Jennifer Collier. Teachers don’t have to spend as much time reviewing last year’s material when summer break is shorter and there are more frequent breaks throughout the school year.

“I am completely opposed to the idea of starting after Labor Day, particularly if tourism is truly one of the (or the only) driving factor behind it,” she wrote in an email.

Cobb County resident Maureen O’Donnell wants her local district to control when school is in session.

“I don’t want the state to decide,” she said. “What’s going to work for Dahlonega or Valdosta may not work for Atlanta.”

Metro Atlanta back-to-school dates

Districts     2018       2019

Atlanta      Aug. 1     Aug. 12*

Clayton     Aug. 6     Aug. 1

Cobb          Aug. 1     Aug. 1

DeKalb      Aug. 6     Aug. 5

Fulton       Aug. 6      n/a

Gwinnett  Aug. 6     Aug. 5

*Pending final board approval

When Georgia districts went back to school this year

Start date Number of districts

July 26     2

July 27     3

July 30     8

July 31     2

Aug. 1      36

Aug. 2      19

Aug. 3      33

Aug. 6      35

Aug. 7      13

Aug. 8      15

Aug. 9:     3

Aug. 10    5

Aug. 13    2

Aug. 15   1

Aug. 16   1

Sept. 4    2

Source: Georgia Department of Education

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