Often marked by trips to Disney World or tours of college campuses, the April school vacation is falling victim to the coronavirus pandemic as students remain trapped in their homes and districts ramp up remote learning.
A growing number of districts, including Newton, Needham, and Burlington, are canceling most of the April break in order to keep momentum going with online learning, which in many cases began in earnest this week. They also want students to maintain connections with their teachers and classmates in an organized fashion, especially as an expected surge in COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks could induce anxiety and despair.
So far, the scuttling of the April break, which was scheduled to begin on April 20, is not generating the public firestorm that typically engulfs proposals that tamper with New England’s long tradition of spring and winter vacations. (No one appears to have the appetite to take away the Good Friday holiday this week.)
The lack of debate "shows what extraordinary times we are in,” said Newton Superintendent David Fleishman.
School Committee approval of Fleishman’s proposal came swiftly. Fleishman announced his proposal last Thursday, and the School Committee approved it Monday during a meeting held remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Brookline School Committee also voted Monday night to ditch April vacation and the Needham School Committee took similar action Tuesday night.
Brendan Weissel, a sophomore at Newton South High School, said in an interview Tuesday that he had no problems with losing the April vacation.
“It’s going to take more than two weeks to get into a routine. It’s a new learning experience,” said Weissel, who also was persuaded by Fleishman’s argument that a focus on learning would be good for students’ mental health.
School districts statewide, though, are hardly unanimous on the issue. The Brockton School Committee voted Tuesday night to retain its April vacation, while Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville also intend to keep the weeklong break.
“We are hopeful that we’ll be able to return to school before the end of the year and feel strongly that this time would be better utilized in the classroom in June,” said Jessica Silva-Hodges, a Brockton schools spokeswoman.
In many cases, districts keeping April vacation will continue posting learning material for students who want to do more studying, and distribute grab-and-go meals.
Keri Rodrigues, who has three children in the Somerville Public Schools and is head of Massachusetts Parents United, said she supported maintaining April vacation. She said many low-income families are finding it difficult to juggle supervising their children’s online learning while also working jobs deemed essential in the pandemic, such as those in hospitals and supermarkets.
“They are lucky if they have the equipment and ability to get online,” she said.
The April vacation debate comes as schools have been shuttered since at least March 17 under an order from Governor Charlie Baker to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Baker’s order lifts in early May, but it remains unclear if the public health crisis will warrant a longer closure. That, in turn, has prompted districts statewide to move to online learning following guidance from state officials.
Whether to cancel April vacation has become an increasingly hot issue, said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. He asked superintendents about the subject one day last week and his inbox exploded with more than 200 responses.
Of districts that were fairly certain where they would land on the issue, about 60 percent were inclined to keep April vacation — contending that people needed a break — and the others wanted to ditch it, he said. The latter group was concerned the vacation would derail online learning and make it all the more difficult to get it back on track again.
Scott surveyed superintendents as state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley was preparing to issue guidance to districts after fielding inquiries about what to do. Last Friday, Riley told districts that he considered the April vacation decision to be a local one, but added that if districts canceled vacation time they could trim those days from the end of the school year.
Riley, however, warned districts they could not touch Monday, April 20, which is Patriots Day, a state holiday.
In Needham, Superintendent Daniel Gutekanst said the ability to shorten the school year factored somewhat in scrapping April vacation. Now classes will end on a Friday, June 19.
“I worried if we kept April vacation we would interrupt learning more and then we would go into the last week of June, and I’ve got to tell you not much learning happens the last week of June. It’s warm and people are tired,” he said in an interview before this week’s School Committee vote to cancel the April break.
Burlington Superintendent Eric Conti said he’s taking a hybrid approach to the April vacation decision, reclaiming the last three days in an effort to continue learning while also giving folks a break.
Some districts remain undecided. Natick Superintendent Anna Nolin has been surveying parents and staff, and the School Committee is expected to decide next week.
Sadie Keesbury, a sophomore at Boston Latin Academy, said she was torn about whether keeping the April vacation was a good idea. She worried the break would kill momentum with online learning, but added the prospect of no vacation before the end of the school year seemed like a long haul, especially with all the stress associated with the pandemic.
“A lot of schools are just getting into a rhythm,” she said. “It might make sense not to have a vacation or postpone it.”