Students, parents and teachers are eager to know when Beaufort County School District will make up the four days of school that were canceled the week of Labor Day because of Hurricane Dorian.
They also want to know why the question of makeup days continues to be an issue every year, despite hurricanes becoming a more expected part of life on the coast lately.
The first answer will likely come Tuesday at the Board of Education meeting, where district staff will present options to the board.
The second answer, however, is far more complicated.
In the past four years, Beaufort County schools have unexpectedly closed 22 days due to six hurricanes and tropical storms, which is more on average than the three weather makeup days the state requires districts to build into their calendars each year.
In that same period, the district has tried several options to account for those days: Saturday school, a shortened winter break and extending the school year, which was decided in 2016 after much confusion and two reversals by the then-school board.
The board placed the district’s three state-mandated makeup days for this school year on Nov. 11, Veterans Day; Nov. 27, the day before Thanksgiving; and March 13.
These three days can count toward overall days that need to be made up but do not count toward missed seat time for high school students, whose minimum instructional time is measured by semester hours rather than the year as a whole.
A recent poll by the local Facebook group STAND for Students asking for opinions on how the district should make up days got more than 200 responses and 100 comments. A majority of respondents favored extending the fall semester to January and using makeup days at the end of the school year, both options that were at different points accepted by the board to make up days after 2016’s Hurricane Matthew.
“This issue of seat time for HS students is the thing that’s driving these make-up days and it’s so insane to me,” Jen Cohen wrote under the poll. “Why hold middle and elementary students accountable for making up weather days when they don’t have mandatory seat time requirements?”
What the state says
Some commenters on STAND’s Facebook poll wondered why the district doesn’t simply move up the start of each school year, which could eliminate the 85-day/95-day semester split in the current calendar and give the district more flexibility to make up seat time.
However, South Carolina has mandated a uniform start date — the third Monday of August every year — for its public schools since 2006.
“I vote for the state to change when we can start school in August to avoid this stress,” Dawn Rosa Miller commented on the STAND poll Tuesday.
“There was MUCH discussion on this at the Academic Committee meeting today,” STAND founder Amanda Schotz Walrad replied. “We have to write letters to our state reps demanding they allow us to start even just 3 days earlier!”
According to Debbie Elmore, the spokeswoman for the South Carolina School Boards Association, this policy came about because of lobbying by the tourism industry in the state to shift the start date further back and maximize summer tourism earnings with a student-backed workforce.
The S.C. School Boards Association has opposed the policy, citing overwhelming support from school districts across the state, since before 2006, Elmore said Friday afternoon. The group also keeps a 2016 report by Olde English Consortium on their website that shows there was a “neutral or negative” impact on tourism in the five years after the uniform start date was implemented.
Horry County School District was the notable exception to school district opposition. According to Elmore, this was driven by their desire for a later start date and the state’s uniform testing dates across the state, which would put school districts starting later at an academic disadvantage. However, since this was changed to a 20-day window of test dates in 2016, Elmore said “not one district objected” to her group’s opposition of the uniform start date.
“The people that are opposing this are primarily the tourism industry in Horry County,” Elmore said.
In an April letter to the county’s legislative delegation, Beaufort County school board chairwoman Christina Gwozdz wrote on behalf of the board that they “firmly believe” in setting the start date locally.
She cited a desire to balance semesters and ease the schedule of students who participate in dual enrollment with Technical College of the Lowcountry, as well as those who graduate early to join the military or enroll in college.
Tricia Fidrych, who chairs the Board of Education’s academic committee and worked as a special education teacher in the district before retirement, said that hurricane makeup days are a new but serious issue for the district.
“For many, many years of my teaching career, this was not a problem,” she said. “That’s become a problem in the last four, five years because of the weather.”
At Tuesday’s academic committee meeting, Fidrych asked for input from community members on the makeup days.
“As a coastal community, if we could start school a week earlier, what a beautiful thing,” she said. “We could have makeup days built in.”
Karen McKenzie, the district’s Teacher of the Year and chairwoman of the district’s Professional Advocacy Council, responded.
“We have fought that fight in South Carolina, and it’s not going to happen,” she said.
An amendment to the start date legislation was introduced in the state’s House of Representatives in January, and has sat in the Education and Public Works committee since then. If passed, it would remove the mandate for school to start on the third Monday of August.
State Rep. Weston Newton, who represents Bluffton and is not a member of this committee, said his initial reaction was to favor eliminating a statewide start date, but he would need to do more research.
“I’m a big advocate of home rule,” he said. “Does it raise challenges for state operations? It might. I’d be interested in evaluating that, how it might look if there were 85 different start dates in the state.”