By Chris Kieffer
School is back in session.
Although the calendar barely flipped into August, many Northeast Mississippi schools will hold their first classes this week. Tupelo starts instruction tomorrow, and Lee County does so on Wednesday.
They won’t begin so early next year.
A 2012 state law prohibits the state’s schools from starting any earlier than the third Monday in August, beginning in the 2014-15 school year. That means schools can’t open their doors until Aug. 18 next year.
The law aims to help tourism on the Gulf Coast and elsewhere by adding an extra couple of weeks of beach time for Mississippi children in August. Many school superintendents oppose the change, however.
For one, it could also push first semester exams past Christmas break and into January, they say.
“Whatever they tell us to do, we’re going to do,” said Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden. “My professional opinion is the new law was not designed to increase instruction, it was designed to promote tourism on the coast and is not in the best interest of the state of Mississippi.”
Mississippi law requires schools to hold 180 days of instruction each year. Some schools could have uneven semesters with fewer days in the first and more in the second. Those on block schedule, such as both Tupelo and Lee County, would have to have the same number of days in each semester, however.
That’s because students complete four courses during the first semester and then take four different classes during the second half of the year. Thus, each semester would need to have roughly 90 days. To fit those days before Christmas, schools would have to dramatically cut holidays.
With the year starting on Aug. 18, if schools cut every holiday except one day for Labor Day and one for Thanksgiving, they could complete their 90-day semester on Dec. 23.
“I hope the Legislature will repeal that law and let us continue to do things the way we’ve done them,” said Lee County Superintendent Jimmy Weeks.
After meeting with parents, the Tupelo School District determined it would be important to still have a week off for Thanksgiving, two weeks for Christmas and four days for Easter in order to allow families to travel for those holidays, Loden said.
According to an early draft of next year’s schedule, students would return from Christmas on Jan. 6 and have a couple of days to review before taking first-semester exams. The year would end June 2, a week after students return from the Memorial Day holiday.
Weeks said Lee County also would likely push exams after Christmas.
“I don’t think we can take up enough holidays to complete instruction time before the Christmas holidays,” he said.
Sam Bounds, the executive director of the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents, said many school chiefs expressed displeasure with the law during the group’s annual conference in July.
“I think just about every superintendent I talked to is against it because they want to do what their community and their school district would like them to do,” he said. “They would like to be able to apply home rule, which they are supposed to have.”
The organization will not determine its legislative priorities until its board meets next month, but one of those could be attempting to get the law changed, Bounds said.
Proponents of the law have said it could help schools save money in cooling costs by keeping children out of classrooms in August, which often sees the hottest days of the year. Both Loden and Weeks said they do not anticipate any cost savings, however.