An Upstate school district could become the first in South Carolina to move toward year-round education.
The Oconee County School District in the northwestern corner of the state is considering adopting a modified calendar for the 2020-21 school year that would shorten summer vacation from 11 to seven weeks and create two-week holidays at the end of every nine-week grading period.
While the proposed calendar wouldn't do away with summer vacation altogether, it shares a common rationale with year-round schedules that public schools have adopted elsewhere in the country.
"Part of the argument is that it would reduce summer slide, and some teachers like the idea of just spacing out their breaks so they can recharge in October in March," District Superintendent Michael Thorsland said.
The "summer slide" is the well-documented phenomenon of students losing ground academically when they take long breaks from school.
A 1996 meta-analysis published in the Review of Education Research found that students tend to lose about a month's worth of learning over summer vacation, as measured by achievement test scores. Students from low-income homes tend to fall farther behind, particularly in literacy.
Responding to pressure from parents, athletic boosters and the tourism industry, the state Legislature passed a law in 2006 that effectively bans year-round schools except for special exceptions granted by the State Board of Education. Three schools have been granted exceptions: The Academy of Teaching and Learning in Chester County, Henry Timrod Elementary in Florence School District 1, and McColl Elementary Middle School in Marlboro County.
The 2006 law also requires the school year to start no earlier than the third Monday in August. Because of the late start, many schools have had to finish their fall semesters after the holiday break, meaning that high school students end up studying for midterm exams while they're home for the holidays.
"This year, we ended up having nine days of the first semester after Christmas break, and that's just not a good situation for students," Thorsland said.
The modified calendar proposed in Oconee County would start July 23, and the semester would end Dec. 18 — just in time for Christmas. The academic calendar would have to be approve by the local school board.
Thorsland said a previous district superintendent broached the idea of shortening summer vacation about a decade ago but dropped the idea after getting pushback, particularly from football coaches who wanted ample time for two-a-day summer practice sessions.
"It did not receive a majority of support in our county, and I think it was largely due to sports," Thorsland said.
The South Carolina High School League introduced new rules in 2018 restricting summer practices during hot weather conditions, requiring athletic staff to check temperatures and heat indexes regularly.
In 2018, parents brought the idea up again during a parent advisory group meeting. The district sent surveys out to parents and staff, and a narrow majority of both groups said they were in favor of a modified calendar for 2020-21, Thorsland said.
Meanwhile in the Lowcountry, the Jasper County School District is in the early stages of exploring year-round schooling. Last fall, Superintendent Rechel Anderson floated the idea of a pilot year-round program at Hardeeville Elementary. The proposal is on hold as the district gathers input from families, according to district spokesperson La'Shanda Grant.
In the legislature this year, a bill sponsored by Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Great Falls, would remove the starting date requirement from state law. The Senate gave the bill its first reading Jan. 8 and referred it to the Committee on Education.