The golden sun warms the glistening sand. The crystal blue ocean waters sparkle as the smell of sunscreen floats in the gentle breeze. Laughter fills the air as cheerful friends celebrate a carefree day at the beach. Summer is an annual rite of passage when hardworking students enjoy long hot days with few responsibilities while making memories that last a lifetime. That is, until this year. The recent decision by the Palm Beach County School Board to start the 2021-2022 school year in early August represents a short-sighted decision hastily made without putting the interests of students first.
On Feb. 3, 2021 by a vote of 6-1, the Palm Beach County School Board approved starting the 2021-2022 school year on Aug. 10 and ending it on May 26. The Aug. 10 starting date means that students’ normal 10-week summer vacation will be reduced to seven weeks.
Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy and members of the board who approved the measure pointed to the “COVID slide” as the main reason the school year needed to begin on Aug. 10. As reported by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel on March 27, students’ academic performance in Palm Beach County has declined with the district seeing the number of F grades more than double this year, as well as a significant increase in student absences. As a result, the school board felt the early start date was needed to help students catch up.
But is anyone really buying this argument? The logic is flawed because the school year is 180 days; a finite number that will not change. In other words, whether the school year begins on Aug.10, Aug. 18, or Aug. 23, students are not receiving any extra days to catch up by starting early.
According to the numbers, Palm Beach County students are no further behind than students in neighboring Broward County or Miami-Dade County. Figures from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel show that in January, Palm Beach County identified 22,000 students as performing poorly, while Broward County identified 38,000 and Miami-Dade approximately 31,000.
The reality is that all students are struggling due to the challenges posed by COVID-19 and the new learning environments that school districts were required to establish in order to help combat the worldwide pandemic. This is even more reason why students need a summer break longer than seven weeks.
The school district cannot expect students to come back to school refreshed and ready to learn if they are given the shortest possible summer after arguably one of the most disruptive and challenging school years in recent history. Students, teachers, staff and parents deserve a much-needed summer break to process the hectic year, unwind, relax and adequately prepare for the 2021-2022 school year. One of the benefits of summer break is that it provides ample time for students to recharge and improve their mental health. Rushing to get students back to school on Aug. 10 has the potential to backfire. Without an adequate summer break, students’ grades, test scores and overall mental and emotional well-being may continue to decline rather than improve like the district assumes. “Many [students] will return to campus next year not just academically behind but also emotionally frail,” said School Board member Debra Robinson. While Mrs. Robinson acknowledges that students are going through a difficult period, ironically, she still voted to start the school year on Aug. 10. How are students supposed to return to school and excel in the classroom when, according to Robinson, they are emotionally frail and have not fully recovered from such a difficult year? And does this mean that cutting a summer vacation short will magically fix the problem? Of course not.
The school districts in both Broward County and Miami-Dade County are smart enough to recognize this. The Broward County School Board approved starting the school year on Aug 18 and ending it on June 9 and the School Board of Miami-Dade County voted to begin the school year on Aug. 23 and end it on June 8. Either one of these options would have worked better for Palm Beach County and provided students with either a much-needed eight or nine-week summer vacation. Instead, the Palm Beach County School Board made a hasty decision that serves their own political interests instead of the interests of the students.
Unfortunately, the Palm Beach County School Board largely ignored complaints from hundreds of parents, students, and teachers in making this decision. In contrast, the Broward County School District actively engaged parents and staff in the decision-making process. Broward County received more than 54,000 responses from parents and staff to a survey that asked for input on the 2021-22 school calendar, which formed the basis of their ultimate decision.
Finally, it is unacceptable that the school board made no effort to compromise on the Aug. 10 start date. Parents and students realize that given the disruptions to the current school year, a 10-week summer vacation may not have been possible, but a compromise certainly would have been possible. An eight or nine-week summer vacation with a shorter Thanksgiving break and a final day in early June instead of late May would have been a reasonable solution to satisfy all parties. Students would have gotten a longer summer break and the school year would have begun and ended earlier than it did this year. The same amount of time would have been available to “catch up” and schools would have had ample opportunities to consider implementing supplementary options such as additional work, after-school assistance, or tutoring to help address the needs of those students who continue to struggle.
The only school board member who voted against the Aug. 10 starting date was Board Vice-Chair Karen Brill, who advocated for students’ mental health to be considered. “I don’t think that this is the year to shorten the … summer break because people need to breathe. They need to be able to get their bearings,” Brill said.
It is unfortunate that her fellow board members did not follow Brill’s reasonable opinion. Instead, thousands of students across Palm Beach County will be left with a summer bummer.
‘COVID slide’ shows more students failing – South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Dec. 6, 2020)
76,000 failing students to be called back to school – South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Jan. 2, 2021)
Summer school is coming back to South Florida – South Florida Sun Sentinel (Mar. 27, 2021)
Summer vacation ends Aug. 10, as PBC public schools scramble to make up for learning losses because of the pandemic- Palm Beach Post (Feb. 3, 2021)
Far more students are failing this year as PBC schools struggle with distance learning- Palm Beach Post (Dec. 21, 2020)