There is virtually no one who can readily recall just why it is that Massachusetts schools take one week of vacation in February.
It is as old as the oldest teacher or most seasoned administrator – whether active or retired.
Some say it’s a vestige of World War II heating oil rationing.
Others say it harkens back to the days before pavement when February was known to debilitate muddy roads and prevent transport.
Others say consecutive harsh winters at the turn of the last century necessitated a break from the daily grind.
Few really know, admittedly.
However, more and more – and especially this year with record snowfall and frequent school cancellations – folks in the various school communities are beginning to question whether or not a February break is such a good idea.
That said, there are just as many opinions, seemingly, for keeping the break as there are for scrapping the February pause.
“I’ve been in the Everett Public Schools for 50 years and it’s always been there since I’ve been here,” said Everett Supt. Fred Foresteire. “I guess you’d have to go back and ask Horace Mann why they started it. It’s been around that long. It’s a tradition and it was put in place years ago.”
In Revere, Supt. Paul Dakin said he would much rather see other days eliminated before February vacation.
“There’s other things we can do first instead,” he said. “We can revisit how we handle religious Holy days. We treat them equally in Revere and we can go to school on all of them or not go on all of them. Not going on Holy days would get us four days, which is pretty much equal to February vacation. I personally think it should be kept, because it could end up being a time when we would have to call more snow days. The decision needs to be made with input from everyone…We need to do what’s best for the kids, and that said, one aspect to think about is that having them in school in February would be best for kids because we have MCAS to prepare for. That week would help them prepare. It’s a tough call.”
Meanwhile, some parents aren’t so sure – which seems to be the trend. Parents almost uniformly want to scrap the February vacation – siting a desire for longer summers and the fact that airlines and resorts now have begun to raise prices for those looking to travel in February. Parents with older kids also cite the fact that if kids are involved in winter sports, they often have to stay close to home for practice or games during break.
“I wouldn’t mind it if we did a week in March instead and got out for summer earlier,” said Whelan School Parent Sabrina Holmberg. “The summer is too short. They start now so early in the year. I don’t mind a March break because we just got December off.”
Solange DaCosta – a parent at the Lincoln School – said there are more things to do in the summer than in February.
“We don’t do much with the kids in February,” she said. “You’re stuck in the house. The snow is so much now and you have more choices with the kids in June.”
In Everett, Margaret Stevens, who is involved in Everett’s Keverian School PTO, said she’s all for adding days in February so that her kids could have a longer summer.
“I really don’t like it,” she said. “We just get off of Christmas break, and this year that was extended, and then we have February break. If we have snow days like this year, those fall in there too. I’d much rather have the extended summer time when its warm…We used to get out on June 6 or 12. To be going 186 days – the month of June is kind of a wash for education with field trips and other things. Once MCAS is over, the real learning is kind of over.”
Whelan School Principal Jamie Flynn said she has mixed feelings about ending the break.
“I think it would have to be a statewide decision so we’re all on the same page,“ she said. “We have so many teachers that work here and have children in other districts. That would be a challenge for them if we got rid of it and their home district did not…The kids need a break at some point. What the perfect scenario would be like, I’d like to look across the nation and see what other places do…I’d like to get a lot of feedback from parents before making any change.”
Her colleague in Everett, Keverian School Principal John Obremski said he believes a break is necessary too.
“I think it’s necessary to give the kids a break, but I’d like to see an extended school year,” he said. “I’d like to start earlier in the year.”
That said, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) is firmly on the side of most parents – advocating over the last couple of years for a consolidated March vacation. That recommendation comes due to the goal of having 180 school days and being able to fit them into a school year that doesn’t infringe upon a family’s summer break.
“We strongly recommend that school officials consider taking the following actions to facilitate meeting the 180-day school year and student learning time requirements,” read a document sent out by DESE in 2012, and reiterated in a letter to all school districts last week. “Hold the first day of school before Labor Day; Schedule a one-week vacation in March instead of week-long vacations in February and April; and Notify parents, teachers, and students when the school calendar is adopted that the February and/or April vacations may be cancelled if multiple school days have to be made up due to inclement weather or other extraordinary circumstances.”
Revere School Committee member Stacy Rizzo – who is active in the statewide School Committee association – said she proposed an end to February vacation in Revere two years ago.
“I go to other School Committee meetings all the time and everyone is afraid to be the first one to do it,” she said. “There is always the argument that it’s hard for teachers because many of them might have kids going to school in other districts. If someone starts it, it will happen. In Revere, we’re often on the forefront, so I said that we should be the first. You come back from winter break, then have MLK Day and maybe you have snow days and then before you know it, you’re in February break. There’s no continuity.”
In Boston, a spokesperson for their district said reconfiguring February break isn’t outside of their scope, and something they would like to discuss with the Teacher’s Union.
“The state has made a set of recommendations dealing with the 180-day school year that includes…consolidating the February and April vacation into one vacation,” said Denise Snyder of the Boston Public Schools (BPS). “We’re looking ahead to the next teacher’s contract to have a discussion about that. It’s most certainly a point of negotiation. No one wants to go to June 30. We’re going to have to be thoughtful as we go forward.”
Like Dakin, Everett Supt. Foresteire is one who believes that it’s probably a good idea to take the break in February.
“This is the issue; people have made plans,” he said. “Families have made plans and it has been that way a long time. The plan to change it has been around a long time – taking one week in March and dropping February and April. In Everett, we go 186 days and start in August. I don’t see it as a big issue for us.”
Seth Daniel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org