VB school board member discusses makeup days

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) – After a number of parents made known their concerns about Virginia Beach City Public Schools making up snow days on Saturdays, school board member Beverly Anderson spoke with 10 On Your Side about the decision.

Last week, Superintendent Dr. Sheila Magula announced students would be expected in class Feb. 15, March 29 and April 26. It led to thousands of comments on 10 On Your Side’s Facebook page.

Anderson said the superintendent makes the decision about makeup days, but she wishes she had been able to provide input.

“When there’s this much at stake and there’s this many days to make up, maybe we do in the future, maybe we should have to be consulted,” she said. “I do feel that the superintendent needs to have this authority. I really do agree with that. There are times that we have to do things in a timely manner, but I do wish that our superintendent would have asked our opinion or at least polled the school board members, because we are the people who are elected.”

Dr. Magula declined to talk to 10 On Your Side on camera, but responded to questions about the board’s role in the decision via email:

Each year, the School Board adopts a school year calendar, which includes the potential makeup schedule. That schedule, which is always posted online, has over the years included the potential for use of Saturdays. School Board Policy 6-12 designates that the responsibility for determining a makeup schedule falls with the superintendent; it is not a School Board decision. I do, however, apprise them of the decisions made and respond to any questions they may have.

Anderson said she would have suggested extending the school day instead of scheduling class on Saturdays.

“Students are already in school, schools are already heated, everyone’s already there, so it’s easier to make up the time since you’re already there,” Anderson said.

Dr. Magula’s response:

Adding time to school days provides just minutes to each course block at the secondary level. Staff members repeatedly have advised administration that this does not make the substantial difference in their lessons that a larger block of time would. Additionally, parents of students, especially at the middle school level, complained their students arrived home too late, especially those who participated in after school activities. Also, making any change to the school schedule puts a strain on school operations, including transportation services, which has to balance the needs of the elementary, middle and high school schedules.

Eduard Gonzalez has two kids in the school system.  He said he understands the district’s predicament, but thinks there has to be a better way.

“I contacted the school board and I offered them to consider removing all early dismissal days from the remaining calendar. They need to communicate better,” he said. “The school just comes out and says this is the answer. I don’t know that they reached out to the parents. I don’t know that that they reached out to the community.”

Dr. Magula answered several other questions about the decision from 10 On Your Side’s questions. See her full response below:

1. Why were Saturdays chosen for makeup days, given concerns about religious groups and school competitions?

My primary goal was to ensure that students received the benefit of adequate instruction prior to high stakes testing. Please remember that a school’s accreditation rises or falls on its students’ performance on the Standards of Learning tests. In addition, a high school student MUST pass these tests to get verified credit toward graduation. In addition, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests are scheduled nationally and figure greatly in the areas of college admissions and college credit. Adding time at the end of the year does not allow adequate preparatory time. We have in the past added 20 minutes to the school day, but middle school parents found this objectionable because it made their children’s dismissal time so late that balancing participation in extracurricular activities and homework became problematic.

I do want to acknowledge the inconvenience to our Jewish community. I can only hope that most will accept that instructional integrity drove my decision not an indifference to their faith. We have been responding to the questions of our Jewish parents regarding their children’s potential absence from schools on the Saturday makeup days. This question frequently arises each school year with the regular school calendar for holidays such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. School Board regulation5-17.1addresses the circumstances that warrant excused absences. This regulation identifies religious holiday is among those reasons that “will be considered as legitimate excuses for a student’s absence.” Also,School Board regulation4-52.1identifies the process an employee would follow to request leave for religious reasons.

2. School board members have said they did not get asked for input on this decision. Why not?

Each year the School Board adopts a school year calendar which includes the potential makeup schedule. That schedule, which is always posted online, has over the years included the potential for use of Saturdays. School Board Policy 6-12 designates that the responsibility for determining a makeup schedule falls with the superintendent; it is not a School Board decision. I do, however, apprise them of the decisions made and respond to any questions they may have.

3. Why not simply extend the school day?

There are a number of reasons. First and foremost, adding time to school days provides just minutes to each course block at the secondary level. Staff members repeatedly have advised administration that this does not make the substantial difference in their lessons that a larger block of time would. Additionally, parents of students, especially at the middle school level, complained their students arrived home too late, especially those who participated in after school activities. Also, making any change to the school schedule puts a strain on school operations, including transportation services, which has to balance the needs of the elementary, middle and high school schedules.

4. Why not ask parents or religious leaders for input?

Every year, parents, teachers and administrators serve on our Calendar Committee which develops the school calendar collaboratively. This committee also identifies the potential make up days, which I use in the decision making process.

5. What faculty members will be expected on Saturdays?

These makeup days will be like any other school day in Virginia Beach. We expect faculty and staff to maintain their work schedules as they would on any other normal operations day. Those who cannot report to work on Saturdays will need to take the appropriate leave.

6. What happens if there’s another snow day this year?

If there is another snow day this year, I will again work with my staff and make a designation based on the best instructional opportunity for students. Right now, there are too many factors involved to go into hypothetical scenarios.

7. Given the response from parents, are there any plans to change this decision or approach it differently next time?

The points our community has raised certainly have merit. Their weight, however, will be applied more toward future problem-solving discussions than to altering the immediate decision at hand. As we move ahead we need to know what approach our community prefers, knowing that we must strive to meet all state standards and provide students adequate instructional time that will help them be successful. For example, a strategy that some school systems employ is to extend their school days by 10 to 20 minutes a day throughout the school year in an effort to “bank time.” It is worth ascertaining if this would work in Virginia Beach and to embark on those conversations.

The United Jewish Federation of Tidewater released the following statement Monday afternoon, regarding Virginia Beach Public School’s Saturday make-up days:

With regard to the decision of the Virginia Beach Public Schools to hold Saturday make-up classes, we will be sending a letter this week on behalf of UJFT leaders, including the Community Relations Council (CRC) Chair, to the Superintendent of Virginia Beach Public Schools and the Virginia Beach School Board.

In the letter, the leaders indicate that the decision to hold classes on a day of religious import to Jews is problematic. The letter does not make a formal demand for rescission of the decision, given that students will be excused for unavoidable absences and religious holidays are excused absences according to Virginia Beach Public Schools policy. Nevertheless, it is still a disappointing and disrespectful solution since it is clear that the School Board and Superintendent were not sensitive to Jews and other religions that treat Saturdays as their holy day in choosing the Saturday option.

The CRC will take this opportunity to meet with and educate the Superintendent and School Board to reinforce our concerns with the make-up policy standards. We know that Saturday was a last option, but it is clear that Sunday was not on the table. This religious indifference is not acceptable and we want to ensure sensitivity going forward.

In addition, to ensure our future success in establishing a close working relationship with the area school boards, please let Robin Mancoll know if you have personal relationships and/or connections to Virginia Beach School Board members. The CRC’s goal will be to educate school officials as to why Saturday is a day of import to Jews. Such a step may help push leaders to revamp the make-up day policy or institute a different solution in the future.

In closing, the public outcry over this controversial decision, as well as criticism by the Virginian Pilot, underscore that this poor choice has been felt community-wide and not only by the Jewish people. However, it has been heartening to see the outpouring of concern for religious freedom.

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