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Board of Regents approve rule changes to school calendar

Regent Roger Tilles, center, seen in Albany on

Regent Roger Tilles, center, seen in Albany on March 12, voted with the 14-member majority to approve rule changes to scheduling school calendars. Credit: Hans Pennink

A divided state Board of Regents on Monday approved controversial new rules aimed at giving school districts greater flexibility in scheduling annual calendars — a change that includes potential for additional ethnic and religious holidays.

Essentially, the new regulations, backed by many educators on Long Island, allow districts to count instructional periods in hours rather than days in order to meet the state’s time requirements. Such accounting, which is being adopted by a growing number of states, is meant to lessen class time lost to storms and other interruptions.

The policymaking Regents board split on the calendar change with 14 members in favor, two abstaining and one opposed, following an hour- and-half of often heated debate. Long Island’s representative on the board, Roger Tilles of Great Neck, voted with the majority, which took action during its monthly meeting in Albany.

At one critical point, following 90 minutes of public deliberation, the Regents took the unusual step of breaking from their formal meeting to work out the details of a final resolution in private discussions.

The vote, by a Regents committee responsible for elementary and secondary education, was ratified by the full board on Tuesday.

Bad weather, including a series of nor’easters that shut schools in Nassau and Suffolk counties last month, was frequently cited in recent weeks as a factor behind the state’s move toward flexible calendars.

Less often mentioned, but even more important according to many local educators, were the increasing pressures faced by districts to recognize a greater number of holidays celebrated by the Island’s increasingly diverse population. Such holidays include Lunar New Year, the Hindu festival of Diwali and the Muslim observances of Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr.

Regional school leaders, while generally supportive of the state’s new regulations, voiced mixed feelings about the outcome of Monday’s Regents vote.

“That does help districts deal with diversity and inclement weather, and that helps us with flexibility,” said Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Plainview-Old Bethpage schools. “The difficult, though, is in the details of how the hours will be counted.”

Current state law requires districts to provide a minimum 180 days of annual instruction. That time can include up to four “superintendents’ conference days” that are used for training of teachers and other staff, while students often stay home.

Under the same law, elementary classes must run at least five hours a day, and secondary classes at least 5 ½ hours a day in order to qualify for state assistance.

The new regulations, when ratified, will put the accounting system on a yearly basis, rather than day-by-day. For example, a minimum 900 hours spread over 180 days will be required for elementary classes, while 990 hours will be required at the secondary level.

Regulations already in place do not allow schools to count lunch periods, recess and periods when students pass between classes as instructional time, according to officials in the state Education Department.

However, Lewis, who is president-elect of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said Monday that she hoped state authorities would grant districts leeway on some accountability details, such as passing time.

Monday’s approved resolution directs Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to confer with local school officials in working out differences over details of the new accountability rules.

Elia, in defending the regulatory changes Monday, estimated that 500 of the state’s 700-plus districts had indicated readiness to put the new rules into effect, starting with the beginning of the 2018-19 school year on July 1.

But Regent Judith Johnson of Spring Valley in Rockland County, who cast the lone “no” vote, noted that the estimate left open the possibility of more than 200 districts unprepared.

“I just don’t think we’re ready yet,” said Johnson, who urged that any action be postponed.

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