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As Richmond Eyes Year-Round School, Other Cities Share Past Experience

School building
Manassas Park City Schools tried a year-round calendar in 2014 similar to the one proposed in Richmond for next year. (Photo: Alan Rodriguez Espinoza/VPM News)

Richmond Superintendent Jason Kamras is proposing that city schools operate year-round next year to help students impacted by virtual learning and the pandemic.

Kamras’s vision is for the 2021-2022 school year to begin in person in August, and end in late June. It would include four two-week breaks, or “intersessions,” every nine weeks. About 5,000 “high-need students” would receive additional instruction during these intersessions, adding up to 40 extra school days.

“Ensuring that the students who need it most get 40 additional days is a rather significant shift, and I think an incredible investment to support our young people,” Kamras said when he first proposed the extended calendar during a January school board meeting.

The adjusted calendar is part of Kamras’s budget proposal. It would require $8 million to fund, which he says will be covered in full by federal coronavirus relief money. The school board has yet to approve the proposed budget and is expected to discuss the year-round calendar Tuesday.

How has the year-round calendar fared elsewhere?

This wouldn’t be the first time Virginia schools take on year-round instruction. Another example is William Marvin Bass Elementary in Lynchburg, which went year-round over a decade ago. Like in the Richmond proposal, Bass offers its students four intersessions throughout the year for additional learning and gives students a shorter summer break.

Monica Hendricks, the school’s principal, says the calendar has been effective in addressing summer learning loss, otherwise known as the “summer slide.” Kamras says that’s among his primary reasons for his proposed calendar adjustments.

“It really benefits some of the students,” Hendricks said. “Instead of us waiting until the summer to catch them up, we are remediating in trying to meet them where they are throughout the school year.”

Bass Elementary is actually on a traditional school calendar this year. Henricks says they reverted back from a year-round calendar because of the pandemic, and the school will transition back to year-round in the summer.

She says the school’s unique calendar actually attracts many families from other school zones to apply, but sometimes they’re confused.

“The people in the community think that the kids are here year-round, so they want their child to go because they feel they need to be in school more days,” she said. “But it's not more days.”

Hendricks says this inherent misunderstanding of their year-round calendar is a big hurdle, so the district has to be really thorough in its messaging to families to clear up any confusion.

Also, students that are new to Bass sometimes don’t realize the school year starts earlier in the summer, and they end up missing the first few days of classes. Overall, Hendricks says clear communication is critical in rolling out an adjusted school calendar.

Eric Neff is the deputy superintendent for Manassas Park City Schools. His entire district temporarily adopted an extended school calendar similar to the one proposed in Richmond in 2014. He echoed Hendricks’s advice to Richmond schools to be thorough in explaining the changes to parents.

“[Students] sold it sometimes as a free week,” Neff said about intersession periods. He said Manassas Park schools relied heavily on teachers to act as liaisons to clarify to families that instruction was actually still being offered during the intersessions, and it wasn’t necessarily a break.

Neff and Henricks both say their schools continued to observe the usual holidays breaks during their year-round calendars. This would also be the case in Richmond if the year-round calendar is approved .

Issues of equity may arise under adjusted calendar

Manassas Park’s intersessions, like the ones proposed for Richmond, were optional to students, and Neff said the district saw underwhelming engagement from middle and high school students.

“We fought the battle with the alarm clock with teenagers. While initial numbers of sign-ups were really good, actual attendance did not measure up to what we saw at the elementary campus,” he said.

While oversleeping may have caused some absences, Neff also said many students in his district are low-income and worked part-time jobs during the intersessions to help their families, driving the lower registration among older students.

Neff added that because interest in the program disproportionately came from elementary schoolers, many elementary teachers expressed concern that they had to work more than their secondary school colleagues.

At Bass, Henricks says childcare has turned out to be one of the most significant challenges. Many childcare providers in Lynchburg close during the intersessions, since every other school is on break, leaving Bass families with no options for those services.

“That was something that I noticed by first year, pretty early on while this calendar had been in place,” she said. “If a family works every day, 8 to 5, and their child gets out at 12:30, where would they go in the afternoon?”

Keeping in mind needs of teachers and staff

Henricks says the intersessions at Bass give staff a chance to catch a break: “Teaching is difficult, and having those weeks, even if they have to work during the intersession week, it's just different. It's a different feel. It's a different vibe, and it really helps us as adults to kind of reset.”

She says her school relies on teacher volunteers for its intersessions, though they are paid in part through grant funding. In the case of Richmond, Kamras has assured teachers who work the intersessions — which would be optional — will receive additional compensation.

At Manassas Park, Neff said teachers actually didn’t take on extra school days. To achieve their year-round calendar, the city decreased the amount of teacher workdays and turned them into instruction days. Still, the early start to the school year was a difficult adjustment. Neff said, “that created some heartburn with teachers.”

Neff describes the classroom experience during the intersessions very similarly to that at Bass. He also characterized it as a “fun” and “different vibe.”

“I can remember our elementary nurses reporting that they saw very few students come to their office during our intersession weeks because they were engaged and enjoying what they were doing, and they weren't looking for an escape from the mundane of the ‘drill-and-kill’ classroom,” he said.

But in order to achieve that, Neff recognized it required a lot of preparation work from teachers, which he says was hard on them.

Henricks also says that a shortened summer break can add unforeseen strain on the work of custodial staff who typically clean the school over the summer. This can be especially true if schools have large building projects planned for the summer break.

“There was a year we had to get our roof replaced,” she recalled. “So the custodial staff, they were a little crunched for time to get the school cleaned and ready for the students to return.”

And for administrative and office staff, Hendricks says the shortened summer break can also add pressure. She even admits she was overwhelmed when she first took over as principal and had to transition from a traditional calendar.

“It's just a very quick turnaround,” she said. “As soon as school ends, it's not really much of me shutting down the school year from before. It's preparing and planning for us to start… I have about a month, four weeks, to get everything up and running for the next school year.”

Do Richmond leaders support year-round school?

During a press briefing earlier this month, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney endorsed Kamras’s year-round calendar proposal, acknowledging that some students have experienced learning loss from virtual and remote learning.

“I think no better way to have our kids catch up is to now have school year round in some sort of way, and so I support this effort. It’s my hope that the school board will agree upon a calendar that works well for not only the teachers, but also for our students too,” Stoney said Feb. 3.

While the school board is set to address the proposal next week, some members have already expressed hesitations. Boardmember Shonda Harris-Muhammed called the superintendent’s proposal “bold,” and she expressed support for the initiative, but she voiced concern that RPS may be rushing to make the calendar a reality.

“If we want to be bold about year-round schooling, then we have to go slow,” Harris-Muhammed said at a meeting earlier this month. “The plan, financial, how we’re going to sustain it, how we’re going to turn over the curriculum calendar — none of that has been presented to us.”

She also says she’s worried that conversations about what the next school year will look like may be overshadowing more immediate conversations about summer school.

Board Chair Cheryl Burke was even more apprehensive: “Year-round school is something I’ve always dreamed of, but not for this coming school year.”

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has been a vocal supporter of local school divisions adopting a year-round calendar. During a January press conference, he endorsed the concept as a way to give students supplemental instructional time.

“Our children have suffered from COVID-19, as have our families, and one of the things that we’re certainly entertaining is looking at perhaps year-round schooling for the next year,” he said Jan. 6.

Northam has also urged school districts to plan on expanding summer school options as a way to combat learning loss from the pandemic. The governor has also called on school districts to start offering in-person instruction as early as March 15, though Richmond school officials don’t seem confidentthat will be possible for the city’s schools.

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