The Moore County Board of Education has already adopted an academic calendar for the coming year, but a local bill pending review in a state legislative committee could give Moore County Schools the latitude to start the school year earlier in August.
School board members have long lobbied for more flexibility from the state when it comes to decisions about when the school year starts and ends. But in addition to mandating that the school year have 185 days, or 1,025 hours of class time, North Carolina also sets fairly tight limits on when that class time can be scheduled.
Current state law prohibits schools from starting earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26, and sets the Friday closest to June 11 as the last possible end date. Charter and year-round schools are exempt from those guidelines.
That has the greatest effect on high school students, who are usually left taking exams and state End-of-Course tests for their fall semester classes in mid-January rather than closing out the semester before Christmas break.
“One of the board’s legislative priorities has centered on calendar flexibility in past years, especially in respect to the desire to end the first semester prior to the December break and provide more alignment with the community college calendar,” Mike Metcalf, Moore County Schools’ executive officer for academics and student support services, told the board earlier this month.
Nearly two years ago the school board attempted to circumvent the state’s school calendar law with the passage of what was labeled an “innovative year-round” calendar that would have started the 2020-2021 year on Aug. 10 and included a pair of four-week “intersessions” during the coming summer.
“We thought that it would meet the definition of a year-round calendar, other districts were doing that, we were modeling around that. However we were informed that would not be allowed by the General Assembly, so we had to push that to the side,” said Metcalf.
“We were allowed to open up earlier this year, but at this point there is no flexibility that would allow us to do that again for the 2021-2022 school year.”
Even without that “year-round” calendar, schools were able to start earlier this past August after North Carolina’s legislature, prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, amended its rules slightly for the current year only.
Starting a week earlier than usual gave Moore County Schools room to end the second nine weeks’ grading period in December.
But it was with the traditional rules back in effect that the board moved earlier this month to approve a calendar for Moore County Schools’ 2021-2022 year.
That proposed calendar, which emerged from a committee of parents, teachers and administrators, drew more than 320 responses when it was put up for public comment in January. Only about 40 percent of those were supportive of the calendar. More than 100 comments objected to the first semester once again extending beyond Christmas break.
The calendar the board adopted starts the school year on Aug. 23 and ends the first semester on Jan. 14, 2022. The second semester will start on Jan. 19 and the last scheduled day of classes is June 8, 2022.
Metcalf said that ending the first semester in December would create a significantly shorter term in the fall than in the spring, even starting on the earliest day allowed by the state.
“With the current lack of flexibility, we’re just not able to make the recommendation to do that. It would be such an unbalanced first semester form the second semester and that's very difficult for our high school staff, to have a much shorter first semester,” said Metcalf.
As approved, the fall semester of the coming year will be 88 days long, followed by a spring semester of 92 days. Were the first semester to end on Dec. 17, it would be 79 days long as compared to a 101-day second semester.
But the fate of that calendar could be tied to a local bill that Moore County’s two state representatives introduced in the General Assembly last week. State Reps. Jamie Boles and Allen McNeill are sponsoring legislation exclusive to Moore County that would allow schools to start their academic year as early as Aug. 10. The proposed legislation would require the school year to end no later than June 11.
The bill was referred this week to the state House’s standing committees on K-12 education and local government, but if passed would be effective for the 2021-2022 school year.
That now stands as the only chance high school students will have of starting winter break with their first semester exams behind them.
When the board reviewed the calendar during its Feb. 1 work session before adopting it at their regular meeting a week later, board member Bob Levy asked if there might be any way of scheduling school days up to Christmas Eve, and on holidays like Veterans’ Day, in order to finish out the fall semester.
“I don’t mean any disrespect or anything, I just want to figure out something,” he said.
Most early-release days scheduled on the original proposed calendar were removed in the revision process, and the district will implement asynchronous professional development. So, at most, Metcalf said that the calendar could gain three days at most before winter break.
“I know from a high school teacher’s perspective, I would much prefer to have those exams before Christmas as well,” said board Chair Libby Carter. “September and October look like very long months on this calendar.”
The question of when school can start — some groups have lobbied to prohibit schools opening prior to Labor Day — has been a long-running dispute between schools and the statewide tourism industry.
“Our representatives are sympathetic to our view,” said Superintendent Bob Grimesey. “It really does come down to a perception of what’s in the best economic interest of the state. I don’t think anybody in Raleigh is making the argument that it’s in the best interest of education.”
“Tourism should not trump education, and this is ridiculous, that our students have to worry about and study for final exams over the Christmas break,” said board member David Hensley. “I know it’s out of our control, but this should change.”