The Fairfax school calendar could be improved

Responding to Questions about the school calendar, Joan Miller commented:

FCPS needs to adopt upcoming school calendars before a March-April timeframe. Loudoun County, for example, determined next year’s school calendar months ago. A family’s summer plans, including booking vacations, airfare and summer camps, often have to made before then to insure competitive rates and openings. These plans must also be made in conjunction with parents requests for time off at their workplaces. Knowing well in advance that children will not be going back to school until after Labor Day, for example, allows families to benefit from the reduced rates offered at many tourist venues and beach rentals during the week before Labor Day.

Understanding that an upcoming school year is inevitable, what beneficial purpose is served for the school district and its families to delay the determination of that calendar until spring?

Loudoun County adopted its calendar in December. I had earlier praised Loudoun for considering four different calendars as options. This is a more helpful way of getting feedback from the community than the method of simply presenting one calendar and allowing a bit of time for comments before the vote.

I think that it made sense for Fairfax to allow extra time this year to evaluate the major changes made during the current school year before adopting next year’s calendar. However, this year’s evaluation was lacking in outreach to parents.

One other advantage of delaying the vote this year is for the school board members to consider the number of snow days we have had. School was canceled again today due to icy roads and sidewalks. The weather forecast indicates that Thursday might be yet another snow day. 

In recent years the school board included 183 days in the student calendar. This year this was reduced to 180 days. The proposed 2015-16 calendar also includes only 180 days. Shouldn’t the school board reconsider this shortened calendar?

The agenda item for the calendar vote does not specifically discuss the issue of the number of days in the school year. Yet it is an important issue that deserves careful consideration by the public.

The agenda item indirectly addresses the length of the school year by describing the number of days that could be missed due to inclement weather. However, the calculations involved in this determination are not shown.

When I took math in school, the teachers would always remind us, “Show your work!”

It would be helpful in considering the calendar if detailed explanations could be included about how the number of hours in the school year are calculated. 

Schultz proposes calendar changes

Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield District) will propose an amendment to the 2015-2016 Standard School Year Calendar at the Fairfax County School Board meeting this Thursday:

I move to amend the main motion by (1) designating the end of the first grading quarter as Tuesday, November 10, 2015 (instead of Friday, October 30, 2015), and designating Wednesday, November 11, 2015, as a student holiday and teacher workday (instead of Monday, November 2, 2015), and (2) designating Friday, June 24, 2016, as a teacher workday (instead of Monday, June 27, 2016), and designating Friday, August 28, 2015, as a school planning day for teachers (instead of Friday, June 24, 2016); this change would result in the new teacher training beginning on Friday, August 21, 2015, instead of Monday, August 24, 2015.

Snow days and deciding whether to close schools

The Sunday weather in the Washington area has caused icy conditions on area roads and sidewalks. All activities in Fairfax County public schools or on school grounds scheduled for 1 p.m. or later today are canceled (Condition 8).

Today’s Washington Post has a good article describing how school transportation directors decide whether to delay or close schools on snowy days.

As part of their decision-making process, they check with their counterparts in other school systems. Tom Watkins, director of transportation for Montgomery County indicated that while everyone does what’s best for their districts, no one wants to be “the lone school system that erred and stayed open when it should have closed, or vice versa.”

Watkins reported a noticeable change in the public mood about snow decisions. “As recently as the 1980s, he said, buses carried chains, because the mindset was to forge ahead in snow.”

“There’s just no tolerance to do that these days,” he said.

Snow day update

Here are the weather-related delays and closings for today . Fairfax and seven other school systems first announced two-hour delays, then switched to closing the schools. Despite these last-minute changes of plans, Jason Samenow of the Capital Weather Gang praised the decisions made today by the local authorities: Congratulations, D.C.: We conquered a commute snowstorm.

Schools made the right calls. Based on the forecast and current conditions, they delayed and/or closed, keeping school buses, parents, and young drivers off snow-covered neighborhood and secondary roads.

Nutrition Advisory Committee updates advice

The Executive Summary of the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee says that its advice is for Americans ages 2 years and older. “The Committee integrated its findings and conclusions into several key themes and articulated specific recommendations for how the report’s findings can be put into action at the individual, community, and population levels.”

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recently submitted its recommendations to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Agriculture (USDA) will consider this report, along with input from other federal agencies and comments from the public as they develop the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015, to be released later this year.

The public is encouraged to view the independent advisory group’s report and provide written comments at www.DietaryGuidelines.gov for a period of 45 days after publication in the Federal Register. The public will also have an opportunity to offer oral comments at a public meeting in Bethesda, Maryland, on March 24, 2015. Those interested in providing oral comments at the March 24, 2015, public meeting can register at www.DietaryGuidelines.gov. Capacity is limited, so participants will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans was first published in 1980. Beginning in 1990, Congress mandated that HHS and USDA release a new edition at least every five years. The Dietary Guidelines contain the latest, science-based nutrition recommendations for the general public with the goal of preventing disease and promoting healthy, active lifestyles. It is written for and used primarily by nutrition and health professionals, policy makers and educators, and is the foundation for federal nutrition efforts, including education initiatives and food assistance programs.

The value of bake sales

Don’t take away our kids’ cookies and cupcakes: Bake sales have value. Petula Dvorak cites the lessons children can learn from a bake sale.

Let each school decide what can be sold at bake sales

Senator J. Chapman Petersen (D-Fairfax) says that bake sales should be left to the discretion of local school boards. He supports legislation in the Virginia General Assembly to direct the state Board of Education to allow some waivers to the federal guidelines on which foods are allowed to be sold at bake sales during school hours.

I support this legislation. I also hope that if local school boards are given more discretion on this, they would allow each individual school to make its own decision.

It is an overreach for the federal government to dictate rules about bake sales in schools. Granted, there is concern about which foods are healthier and which are less healthy. However, the federal government is not omniscient in knowing what is best for children (or adults). The new scientific consensus overturning previous advice on subjects such as fat and cholesterol was mentioned in an op-ed yesterday in the New York Times. “Since the very first nutritional guidelines to restrict saturated fat and cholesterol were released by the American Heart Association in 1961, Americans have been the subjects of a vast, uncontrolled diet experiment with disastrous consequences,” Nina Teicholz wrote. “We have to start looking more skeptically at epidemiological studies and rethinking nutrition policy from the ground up.”

However, even if there is a consensus about the relative health benefits of certain snack items, it is not the business of government to make decisions for local parents and schools. A donut is not a cigarette. The government has no business trying to ban donuts in schools.

Let schools be in charge of their own bake sales. The federal government, the state government, and even the local school boards should refrain from trying to micromanage the operation of bake sales in schools.

Questions about the school calendar

Although Superintendent Karen Garza emphasized that it was not the usual practice, I found the discussion of two of the new business items at last night’s meeting of the Fairfax County School Board to be very illuminating. Yes, let’s encourage school board members to ask questions and discuss their concerns when new business is presented.

I’m glad Megan McLaughlin (Braddock District) asked for a comparison of Fairfax County with other school districts in terms of teacher workdays. I’m glad Sandy Evans (Mason District) asked about possible changes in some of the student holidays. And we can expect an amendment from Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield District) for a Veteran’s Day holiday for students. Ted Velkoff (At-Large) asked helpful questions about the plans for the new Advanced Academic Center at Poplar Tree Elementary School.

Harris LaTeef has done an excellent job representing students this year. It was interesting that he strongly supported a two-week Winter Break to give students a chance to relax a bit. Yes, but what about the parents? Many parents might be more stressed rather than less stressed by a two-week Winter Break. It is significant that Kimberly Adams, president of the Fairfax Education Association, spoke out in favor of a shorter Winter Break and an earlier end to the school year.

It is a bit inconsistent for the members of the Fairfax County School Board to be indignant at the state requirement to start school after Labor Day while they accept a shorter number of days in the school year. Their case for flexibility would be stronger if they demonstrated in interested in the benefits of more class time for the students by returning to a calendar of 183 days.

I’m thinking I might have to change my position on the Labor Day issue if I want to make any progress in advocating for a 183-day school calendar. This week in particular provides a good illustration of the benefits of scheduling more days. Students only attended school for one day, Thursday. Today school was cancelled due to the extreme cold weather.

I’ll have more to say about the calendar later, but I wanted to comment right away on how refreshing it was to hear discussions about new business. This makes it more likely that agenda items can be improved before the vote.

Fairfax needs more days in the school calendar

Fairfax is one of the local school systems that will be closed on Wednesday, February 18.

Then the next day the Fairfax County School Board will receive as new business a calendar for next year that has only 180 days, not 183 as in past years. When we see the number of snow days that pop up, does it really make sense to shorten the number of days planned for the school year?

NBC reports on the number of snow days

NBC4 Washington reports on the number of snow days left in the various local school districts. It’s a little confusing to see that Fairfax lists 12 days allocated for inclement weather closures; whereas Falls Church lists 28 instructional hours allocated for snow closures, with 13 hours used. Meanwhile, Loudoun, which also counts hours rather than days, lists “N/A” in the category of days allocated.