Longer Thanksgiving, Shorter Winter Break Approved for WJCC School Calendar

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This pie chart, presented during the Feb. 16 WJCC School Board meeting, shows a wide range of satisfaction with the 2016-2017 academic calendar. (WJCC Schools)
This pie chart, presented during the Feb. 16 WJCC School Board meeting, shows a wide range of satisfaction with the 2016-2017 academic calendar. (WJCC Schools)

All but one member of the WJCC School Board approved a 2016-2017 academic year calendar last night that includes one more day off during Thanksgiving but also a shorter winter break than last year.

Sandy Young (Berkeley) was the only dissenting vote for the calendar, which includes 180 days for teaching as well as dates for professional development, teacher planning, parent conferences, open houses and student assessment.

The approved calendar changes the Wednesday before Thanksgiving from a half day to a full day off.

During the 2015-2016 academic year, schools were closed for a full 10 days before students returned for classes Jan. 4. The 2016-2017 calendar changes the first day of last year’s winter break, Dec. 21, to a half day and closes school for eight days, as the Christmas and New Year’s holidays fall on weekends.

Before casting the vote, board members expressed concern about an October survey of school division stakeholders, which sought opinions on holiday vacation options, and how it compared to a second survey, which was released in late January and solicited feedback on the draft calendar.

WJCC School Division spokeswoman Betsy Overkamp-Smith said there were 488 respondents to the October survey, a total that was significantly higher than previous years. Respondents were encouraged to choose between three different vacation options with varying school closures for winter break and Thanksgiving break.

Of the 535 respondents to the second survey, which included students, parents, school division employees and community members, 42 percent said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the calendar. Twenty percent were neutral and 37 percent were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied.

In response to an open comment section at the end of the second survey, more than half of “unsatisfied” parents expressed opposition to the proposed length of winter break.

Some board members said they thought the second survey was a resurvey, rather than a follow-up. Young said the second survey should have included the same questions as the first survey, particularly after seeing what she called “half and half” satisfaction among respondents.

“I’m not sure that I’m ready to approve a calendar without knowing what people really want for Thanksgiving and Christmas break,” Young said.

Overkamp-Smith said the 2016-2017 calendar aligns with those other localities, which also suggested a three-day Thanksgiving holiday and an eight-day winter break. Uniformity with other calendars helps teachers whose children attend school in another county and parents who may work for a nearby school division, Overkamp-Smith said.

The calendar is not created from survey feedback alone. A calendar committee that represents all stakeholders considers feedback as well as compliance with state law when determining an academic calendar.

State code requires that the school year begin no earlier than Labor Day, a mandate originally favored by Virginia’s multiple amusement parks, which operate through the end of August, to encourage tourism.

Board Chairman Jim Kelly (Jamestown) said it is important the board approves the calendar recommended by the committee.

“Our committee came forward … I think it’s important that we follow them,” Kelly said.