Brentwood Middle School students work together in teacher Megan Prado's seventh grade integrated reading and writing course.
Several local districts are considering varying their traditional calendars, including Edgewood Independent School District. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

As school districts work to determine how to safely resume on-campus instruction for the 2020-21 school year, some school systems are considering a longer academic year that includes more breaks.

In guidance to school districts, one option Texas Education Agency officials proposed is a school year that would start early in August and build in several new weeklong breaks around Thanksgiving, winter, and spring breaks. The academic calendar would end later than normal in June.

In planning for the new school year, school systems are faced with catching up students who spent months at home in a wide variety of environments. They’ll have to adapt instruction for individual students and close learning gaps that widened since schools closed in March. All the while, schools will have to prepare plans for potential campus closures if the coronavirus flares up again.

Educators could use additional breaks to work more intensively with students who need support or serve as makeup days should campuses have to close again because of the coronavirus. The proposal, known as an intersessional calendar, would add more time for learning and provide greater flexibility for potential closures but could cost schools more for staffing or utilities. The state could support some of these costs through a provision in the 2019 school finance package.

Several local districts are considering varying their traditional calendars to take advantage of the added days, including Edgewood Independent School District.

“We’re getting the opportunity to respond to a challenge in a way that might innovate education,” said Angela Dominguez, EISD’s chief of secondary schools.

At a school board meeting Tuesday night, Dominguez presented a new calendar proposal to trustees, who already approved a traditional calendar a few months ago. It doesn’t line up exactly with the TEA’s model, but it shares similar elements.

Dominguez told the board the district explored the intersessional option because students spent 46 calendar days, more than 50 percent of the spring semester, learning at home, and student participation varied widely. More disruptions are probable in the coming school year, she emphasized.

“The bottom line is the [2020-21] school year is likely to be disrupted based on what we are seeing with the research and information coming out from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention],” Dominguez said. “We can probably expect that we will have some intermittent closures. … We’ll also have the possibility of high student absenteeism for parents that refuse to send children to school because of fear in terms of the current context. We also have to adjust for that learning loss that we talked about.”

Edgewood ISD officials proposed adding 15 minutes of instruction to each school day – a change that would add more than 5,000 instructional minutes over the school year – and building in breaks in October, March, January, and June at times when sickness could spike and more people tend to travel.

The academic calendar would expand from 175 days to 180 days, adding five days that Dominguez said would “make a world of difference.”

“Instead of waiting for a student to fail all year, we actually intervene much sooner, much more timely, and get the kids back on track so losses don’t go even further,” she said.

Edgewood ISD polled parents, teachers, and students on the elements of the plan. School would normally start on Aug. 17, but the district proposed an earlier start date, which parents favored, Dominguez said. There was less support for a later end date.

More than 40 percent of the 619 parent respondents also said they favored more frequent breaks during the year.

Parents primarily were concerned about safety and health concerns being addressed, Superintendent Eduardo Hernández said. Students were most interested in how they could get academic support if they needed it, he added.

“Our staff, they are sort of in the middle. I have a lot of staff who are for it because they realize the kids need additional time with our teachers,” Hernández said.

Under the modified calendar, teacher contracts would remain the same. During breaks, the district would bring in the highest-performing educators to work with struggling students and issue supplemental pay, similar to summer school.

District officials will continue collecting feedback and the board is expected to vote on the proposal at a June 23 board meeting. Community members can find how to submit additional feedback on Edgewood ISD’s website.

Edgewood isn’t the only district looking into calendar changes to adapt to the pandemic. Harlandale ISD asked families to fill out a survey with their calendar preferences.

Northside Independent School District plans to survey families about what they want to see to make them feel safe in returning to school, Superintendent Brian Woods said Wednesday during a Rivard Report virtual education discussion. SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez also indicated his district was surveying families to collect similar input.

To adopt a nontraditional schedule, districts must meet one of two qualifications outlined here.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.