A LONG-HELD quirk of the New England school calendar is the existence of not one but two weeks of vacation after the winter holidays: In February, and then again in April. This is unheard of in other regions — even places that get plenty of snow — but in Massachusetts, the practice is largely sacrosanct. It shouldn’t be. The torturous winter of 2015 should spur the advent, in Massachusetts, of a new school-year tradition: One spring break.
Already this year, April vacation week is in the crosshairs. State law requires schools to hold 180 days of instruction time, and many districts — which have the power to set their own calendars — have had to cancel enough school already to extend the learning year into July. Schools have a range of options for making up instruction time, such as extending the school day itself or holding school on Saturdays; the state has a waiver process for districts that propose creative solutions. Some New Hampshire schools have experimented with take-home “blizzard bags” that can substitute for in-school instruction. But in recent days, both Governor Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh have suggested the simplest option: cutting into those April days.
It’s an appealing solution in part because scheduling two weeks of vacation doesn’t jibe with the burdens and constraints of modern life. The current schedule places a burden on the large number of families with two working parents, who are forced to scramble and pay for child care. In addition, too many breaks, in a season also rife with snow closures and holidays, threaten to cut into the rhythm of instruction. Many districts already start school well before Labor Day, but — notwithstanding the argument that summer break istself is a vestige of an agrarian economy — extending school too far into the summer isn’t viable. It would be a blow to a vibrant sub-economy of camps and pools. And un-air-conditioned classrooms, on hot summer days, are hardly conducive to learning.
For years now, in memos to school superintendents and charter school heads, Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester has recommended that districts adopt a single week of vacation, in March. (He also suggests that, if not, districts warn families ahead of time that too many snow days could cut into April breaks). In recent years, the idea has begun to take hold, even in recalcitrant New England; some Connecticut school districts have switched to a single vacation week, and last year, superintendents in Rhode Island floated the idea. They’re right. Snow isn’t going away. Schools are going to have to adjust.