“Not that big a deal.”
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All were phrases voiced by parents to describe how Beaufort County School District’s two Saturday makeup days went for their families.
The Beaufort County Board of Education identified Saturdays as the designated weather makeup days in this year’s academic calendar, and the days went into effect after Tropical Storm Irma shuttered schools for two days, marking the first weekend dates the district has held school in at least five years.
At a Nov. 28 school board meeting, superintendent Jeff Moss called the first Saturday makeup day, held Nov. 18, a “success.” The second makeup day was held Saturday, Dec. 16.
However, it is unclear how many students showed up for school on those days.
Though The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette asked the district for absence data, officials did not provide the total number of students who were not present Saturday. Instead, the district gave only the unexcused absences for both days and did not include excused absences.
When asked for the complete data Tuesday, district spokesman Jim Foster said the newspapers would need to submit a Freedom of Information Act request for that information.
District data shows about 30 percent of students with unexcused absences Nov. 18, though rates varied by school. About 27 percent of students were marked unexcused Dec. 16, according to district data provided Tuesday. On the Friday before, Dec. 15, about six percent of students were marked unexcused.
Because of a federal overtime law, each Saturday cost the district about $75,000 in staff overtime pay — and that won’t be reimbursed by the federal government. While school districts are eligible for reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, operating costs from makeup days are excluded, according to a FEMA Public Assistance Program Guide.
Beyond the additional cost, some parents are questioning how much learning took place in the classroom on the weekend makeup days.
Alan Milledge said he sent his daughter, who attends Robert Smalls International Academy, to school both Saturdays, but said she spent most of her time in the gym playing.
“I don’t think that’s valuable,” he said. “They should be learning, especially if I have to change my plans. It was basically a hangout day for them.”
Posts from individual schools’ Facebook pages both support and refute this theory.
▪ First- and second-graders at Hilton Head Island School for the Creative Arts created and ran games as part of a “Cardboard Arcade.”
▪ Some Red Cedar Elementary students crafted parachutes and dropped them over stairwells.
▪ At Okatie Elementary, third-, fourth- and fifth-graders took a trip to the movie theater to see “Ferdinand.”
▪ Coosa Elementary’s third-graders learned about symmetry with snowflakes and studied changes in states of matter with ice-cream making.
Bluffton parent Chris Short said his high school student made pancakes in one of his classes and his second-grader, who was taught by a substitute teacher Saturday, watched movies and fell asleep.
“If you’re looking to satisfy the legal requirements, it was successful,” he said, referring to the state’s seat time requirement for high school students. “As far as education requirements, it wasn’t up to snuff. Most days it was about being entertained rather than educated.”
Short suggested a half-day would have broader appeal among parents, much like Jasper County School District did in scheduling makeup days as half-days on Saturdays.
South Carolina law allows school districts to hold three half-days per year.
Beaufort County had already built theirs into the calendar: one in October for parent-teacher conferences, one on Wednesday before the start of holiday break and the third on the last day of school. The Friday before Irma hit was counted as an early dismissal, not a half-day, Foster said.
An argument can be made that holding a half-day would lead to lower attendance and possibly even less learning.
Bluffton father Dave Abernathy said it was “no major issue to throw a Saturday on the calendar” for his family.
He said his eight-grade son at H.E. McCracken described the Saturday as “baby-sitting” while his daughter at May River used class time to review for upcoming exams.
“It’s seat time, and it’s required,” he said. “Just because its not a popular decision, you have to move along with it. ... It’s almost impossible to please everyone across the board.”
Four teachers weighed in on the issue at the board’s Dec. 12 meeting. All asked the board to delay voting on next year’s calendar until the state Legislature considers amending current law, which mandates no public school districts start before the third Monday in August.
Nancy Ungvarsky — a biology teacher at Beaufort High School and this year’s Teacher of the Year — asked the board to consider ending the semester after winter break, a change that would create more flexibility within the fall semester should a storm shave off instructional days needing to be made up.
Some have opposed this idea because students would be returning to school for final exams after more than two weeks off.
If you’re looking to satisfy the legal requirements, it was successful. As far as education requirements, it wasn’t up to snuff. Most days it was about being entertained rather than educated.
Bluffton father Chris Short
Others were still digesting the decision to hold makeup days on Saturdays. Of the state’s 20 largest school districts, Beaufort County’s 2017-18 calendar is the only to designate Saturdays for makeup days.
When a River Ridge Academy teacher told Bluffton mother Kelly Cardenas that makeup days were scheduled for Saturdays, Cardenas thought the teacher was kidding.
“What in the world is this?” Cardenas remembers asking herself when she learned Saturday school was not, in fact, a joke. She decided neither of her children would attend the days.
“They’re both straight-A students, they haven’t missed a day yet, they haven’t been sick,” Cardenas explained. “Why didn’t they take away from Christmas break?”
Cardenas, who moved to the area in June, was unaware of the scheduling issues that cropped up last year in Hurricane Matthew’s aftermath.
After several changes, the school board ultimately decided last year to push back winter break by three days, leading to parent complaints about already-booked flights and nonrefundable vacations.
However, for as much backlash the board received then, an average of 1,900 students were absent on each of the three December 2016 makeup days — meaning there was far higher attendance those days than from both Saturdays this year.
Lady’s Island mother Jessica Vasil didn’t send her daughter the first Saturday because of illness. And she let her skip the second Saturday as well.
“I didn’t have the heart to tell my 5-year-old that everyone would be home making Christmas cookies but she had to go to school,” Vasil said.
A proposal brought by superintendent Jeff Moss designates three weekdays as weather makeup days for the 2018-19 school year, though the Beaufort County Board of Education, which approves the academic calendar, has yet to vote on it.
- Wednesday, Nov. 21
- Monday, June 3
- Tuesday, June 4
Jasper County School District’s calendar for next year also designates only weekdays as weather makeup days, though the calendar also needs board approval, district spokeswoman La’Shanda Grant wrote in an email.