Post-Labor Day school start brings mixed feelings

ESCANABA — It’s that time of year again — the start of a new school year is the day after Labor Day.

There’s a reason for that. In Michigan, since 2005, state law dictates school will not open for the year until after Labor Day. The law was designed — in part — to extend the tourism season in the state.

Schools, however, may apply for a waiver from the state Superintendent of Public Instruction to start classes before Labor Day.

Local school superintendents have mixed feelings about the post-Labor Day school start.

“I think most educators see the value of a pre-Labor Day start as a way to help overcome the ‘summer slide’ students often experience. And, fall sports and activities are already underway well before Labor Day,” said Coby Fletcher, superintendent of the Escanaba School District.

“There are difficulties, however. For example, many of our buildings are not air conditioned, so hot, humid summer days will be a challenge without the expense of adding chillers. All in all, I think if we found a way to climatize our buildings, an early start or a balanced calendar (where students go to school for the same number of days, just spread throughout the entire year) would be the educationally sound way to go.”

Jason Lockwood, Bark River-Harris school superintendent agrees with Fletcher. The Bark River-Harris School District would need other cooling means if there were classes in the summer.

“I believe school districts should have full local control when it comes to setting the school calendar. I understand the history and rationale behind the post Labor Day start, but I believe that if local school districts had full control of setting the school calendar, many positive educational outcomes could be improved.” said Lockwood.

“The flexibility that would be created by allowing a pre-Labor Day start could foster and promote creative schedules that would not only provide an adequate summer break, but also allow for a calendar that increases the quality of instruction time throughout the year.” noted Lockwood. “Ultimately, school calendars should be based around what is best for the students. In my opinion, allowing school districts to control the start and end date would not only support community interests, but would support the developmental needs of our students.”

For those in the tourism business, children going back to school after Labor Day is seen a little differently.

“Most of the tourism based businesses in the U.P. rely on a strong summer tourist season each year to stay afloat,” said Jarred Drown, president of Visit Escanaba. “Shortening the summer for students would hurt tourism to the U.P. People are still going to take their vacations each year, but if we started school earlier and had longer breaks in the middle of the year we would essentially be sending tourism dollars out of the U.P. and to places like Florida, the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean.”

Regardless of how starting after the holiday affects tourism, some superintendents feel their hands are tied because of the law.

“Back in 2005, when House Bill 4803 was introduced to the legislature, many of us had issues with the reasoning and rationale behind it. However, it was eventually packaged with a number of other bills that ultimately became the Jobs Package, and was signed into law in late 2005. Since that time, many of the promises made regarding school calendar have changed, and now local districts have very little local control over the calendar,” noted Jay Kulbertis, superintendent of Gladstone and Rapid River The Michigan Department of Education (MDE) recognized the desire of many districts to best meet the educational needs of their students, so it increasingly approved waivers to the post-Labor Day start. As expected, there has been some backlash from the tourism industry, state chamber of commerce, and others, so MDE has pulled back their support of the waivers, according to Kulbertis.

“Locally, we have discussed the waiver issue at length… we have found ways to make the best of the current situation, and there has not been much interest among parents or the community in moving to an earlier start. Yet, we are collectively looking at how all of our students might benefit from a more balanced calendar, that spreads vacation time out more evenly throughout the year, and reducing the length of the summer break,” Kulbertis said.

Tom Nemacheck, executive director of the Upper Peninsula Travel and Recreation Association, believes previous polls show the community would like to keep the start of school the way it is.

“There are approximately 140 school districts that have received waivers from the law, so it’s defeated in that case. Since we passed this law, it’s been a win-win for everyone,” said Nemacheck. “July and August is when we see our best months, more traffic. August has the best temperatures and least amount of bug supply. If schools started earlier it would affect businesses that hire summer help. Other states around us hurt our tourism when they go back to school before Labor Day.”