School Committee cancels February vacation, and April vacation could be next

The Newton School Committee unanimously voted on Thursday night to cancel February vacation in order to help the district make up some of the days lost to the teachers’ strike.

And depending on how things shape out with the strike and the weather, they may soon be looking at April vacation and some weekends too.

“Looking at the dates and how many days we have to make up, I think we have no option right now other than to assume that February break goes away,” School Committee member Rajeev Parlikar said. “And we will also, based on when the strike ends, have to figure out what happens to April break and the last several days of June. We’re not at the point where one of those options will be sufficient.”

Committee member Paul Levy agreed and added that since the students have been out for so long already, having them return for a few days and then go on break, “Seems to me that it wouldn’t be so helpful or good for them.”

Both February and April breaks have four days each, because each begins with a Monday holiday. So even if April vacation is canceled in addition to February break, that’s only eight days of the dozen days needed to be made up.

How did it come to this?

In Massachusetts, students are required to have 180 days of school per academic year. In terms of hours, kindergarten students are required to get 425 hours of school per academic year; elementary students must get 900 hours; and high school students must get 990 hours.

And the schools can only go until June 30.

“We build into the calendar five days after the planned 180th day, in case we have a snow day any time within those 180 days,” Superintendent Anna Nolin explained.

And the days and hours requirements are not negotiable in the law.

“It is not a choice, it’s not something that the Department of Ed is going to excuse for us, so we have to make up those 10 days,” Nolin said.

Newton schools have been closed for 11 days, and those days have to be made up. Franklin Elementary School has one more day to make up because that school was closed for a day when an employee passed away there last month.

In addition, teachers and staff are paid an additional day after students finish, to satisfy contract requirements. So the district has to find 12 make-up days. And that’s if the strike ends this weekend and there are no snow days.

Federal holidays are not allowed to be used to make up school days. Patriots Day (‘Marathon Monday’) isn’t an option either. And the Department of Education doesn’t allow half days to be made into whole days to make up school days, either,

What options are there? School vacations, which is why the committee chose to axe February vacation and, if needed, may look at April vacation too.

Other options include Good Friday and weekends, but there are religious considerations with those. Good Friday is a Christian Holiday, Saturdays would interfere with Jewish observance of the Sabbath, and Sundays would interfere with Christian observance of the Sabbath. And some people worship both weekend days.

“You have an impossible choice before you,” Nolin said to the committee. “You will feel like schools superintendent too, where your job is to disappoint people at immeasurable rates.”

But choose they did. And February vacation is gone. Nolin and the School Committee are expected to look the other options as the school year progresses.

Committee member Amy Davenport, who serves as a high school principal, said having kids in school during February vacation would give structure to those impacted by a lack of structure and routine these past two weeks.

“I also think about the impact to our high school athletes, who haven’t been able to compete in contests and how there might be some real benefit to giving them more school days to compete in those contests, over break—or over what used to be break.”