Salem City Schools will open before Labor Day next year for the first time in two decades.
The school board approved the 2020-21 calendar on Tuesday. The first day of classes will be Aug. 31. Salem City Schools is the only school division west of the Richmond area that still opens after Labor Day.
Earlier this year, Gov. Ralph Northam signed two bills that eliminated the requirement that schools open after Labor Day. School boards are now able to open school as early as two weeks before the holiday. The majority of districts in western Virginia already had waivers to open before Labor Day for an experimental program or because of a history of inclement weather. Most of the schools starting after Labor Day are in the Richmond region and Hampton Roads.
Salem’s Assistant Superintendent Curtis Hicks said the division decided to start before Labor Day because the holiday falls on Sept. 7, which he said is too late. To start after Labor Day would push the last day of school to June 18, 2021.
By starting earlier, the division was able to ensure a two-week winter break. The last day of school will be June 11, 2021.
The school board anticipates opening before Labor Day for the next two school years until the holiday moves back to an earlier date: Sept. 4, 2023.
The city’s school board also is considering an extended summer program to benefit students with weaknesses in math and English. The division was awarded a $50,000 planning grant from the Virginia Department of Education to explore the option.
The preliminary plans are for a six-week summer program in a “learning camp” setting. The program would run for five hours per day and focus on math and reading skills, but also social-emotional learning, physical activity and career exploration.
Each week would focus on one of Virginia’s five C’s: critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creative thinking and citizenship.
“We want it to be more like a camp than like school,” Hicks said. “It would give students an opportunity to learn and do something they normally wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.”
The program would be similar to Roanoke City Public Schools’ RCPS+ program, which launched in 2013 to counter the “summer slide,” or the loss of academic skills and knowledge during summer break. This past summer, Roanoke’s program saw record numbers with 3,400 students participating.
Currently, Salem City Schools offers a two-week remediation program for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The new program would extend it to six weeks and allow the division to update and expand the curriculum.
The division has identified about 200 students who would be included based on Standards of Learning scores, classroom performance, attendance and behavioral criteria. But the program would be free and available to all incoming students from kindergarten to eighth grade.
Hicks said the division may slightly expand the current program this coming summer, but the new program would not be fully implemented until summer 2021.
In other news, two members of the Salem School Board were reappointed Tuesday by the Salem City Council for new three-year terms. Artice Ledbetter will be serving her fourth term and Andy Raines will serve his third term. Most school boards in Virginia are elected by voters. Salem’s council and neighboring Roanoke’s are among a handful of local governments statewide that still appoint school board members.