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8 to 3: Are three weeks too long for winter break?

A man and two children ride sleds down a snowy hill in Lebec, Calif.
Some parents enjoy the LAUSD’s three-week winter break. The Times’ Deborah Netburn thinks, perhaps, it’s a bit too long.
(Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

This is the Dec. 27, 2021, edition of the 8 to 3 newsletter about school, kids and parenting. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox every Monday.

Hello this is Deborah Netburn, faith and spirituality reporter for the Los Angeles Times, filling in for your usual newsletter writer, Laura Newberry. Happy holidays, everyone!

As we enter the second week of LAUSD’s epic three-week winter vacation, I’m experiencing an unwelcome bout of deja vu.

I’ve never been a fan of the three-week winter break. Who can take that much time off work to watch the kids? But three weeks of no school in yet another coronavirus surge? Even worse.

This year, my family was expecting a steady stream of out-of-town visitors to break up the monotony for my two sons — and to help keep them off screens. Then Omicron hit, and everyone canceled. So, for the second year in a row, we found ourselves staring down 23 days of unstructured time for the boys and trying to figure out how to fill it while continuing to earn a paycheck.

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(And, yes, I know all about the winter camps, but I’ve always resented having to spend money to occupy my kids during a winter vacation.)

When I was growing up on the East Coast, winter vacation was clearly defined as the time between Christmas and New Year’s with a day or two of padding around the edges. My husband, who grew up in California, remembers a solid two weeks of winter break. (His school district didn’t have snow days to contend with.) But, still, two weeks I could handle. What made LAUSD, the second-largest school district in the country, decide to extend its break to three full weeks?

It wasn’t always this way. Not that long ago, Los Angeles Unified schools were able to choose their own start and end dates as long as they met the minimum number of instructional days and minutes, an LAUSD spokesperson told me. Some used a year-round schedule; others stuck to a traditional schedule, similar to the one I remember from my youth. Still others adopted a calendar that moved the start of the school year back to early August, allowing students to wrap up their first-semester finals before taking an extended winter break.

LAUSD leaders found there were several academic advantages to the early-start, long-winter-break school year, the spokesperson said. It mitigated absenteeism around the holidays, when some parents pull kids out of school for travel out of the state or country — especially important for the children of immigrants who want to visit family abroad. It gave students more time for credit recovery programs, which let them make up failed classes online or in person. And it gave students taking Advanced Placement courses more time to prepare for those tests, which are given in mid-May.

For all these reasons, LAUSD chose an early August start date when it adopted a district-wide school calendar beginning in the 2012-13 school year.

The calendar has remained controversial, however. In 2016, then-Supt. Michelle King suggested starting school in late August and reducing the winter break to two weeks, but the school board rejected the proposal.

In the wake of the devastating 2020-21 school year, the district polled parents and teachers to see if they wanted the school calendar to change in order to offer more instructional time for students. Of the parents who responded, 44% said they wanted no change to the calendar, 29% said they wanted school to start two weeks earlier, and 27% favored starting school one week earlier and shortening the three-week winter break by one week.

The teachers union did its own member survey on the issue. About 75% of union members responded, and 75% of those opposed extending the school year. Needless to say, the calendar didn’t change, and here we are.

I’ve done my own mini-poll of some of my friends who also have kids in LAUSD to see if they agree that the three-week break is too long. The results, I was surprised to discover, were mixed. Some felt the extended break was a delicious luxury that gave their family much-needed time to veg out and do nothing after the craziness of the winter holidays. Others, like me, said they were at their wits’ end by the end of the second week.

I also understand that, this year, the extended break could be a blessing, giving schools and health officials time to figure out how they are going to deal with the many unknowns of Omicron, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it!

Wherever you stand on the issue, I’m wishing you a very happy New Year, and a relaxing rest of your winter break.

Tragedy and uplift

Every parent has nightmares about something horrible happening to their children. But who would think their child would be in danger of getting shot when they’re in a store’s dressing room trying on clothes? That, tragically, is exactly what happened last week to 14-year-old Valentina Orellana-Peralta.

“If you knew her, you would love her.” That’s what one school board member said about longtime L.A. teacher and administrator Cara Schneider, who died recently. Judging by this obituary by my colleague Melissa Gomez, it sounds accurate. Who couldn’t love an educator who blasted the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” once a week on the school intercom?

We’ve found 13 things to do with kids this holiday season that won’t break the bank, and don’t ask me why it’s 13.

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What else we’re reading this week

Joshua Lazerson was a student in Rose Sleigh’s AP English class at Torrey Pines High School. When she fell into financial trouble and faced the loss of her home, he leapt into action with other students to help her. But here’s the remarkable part: Lazerson took Sleigh’s class in 1976. Like many other former students, he remembered her — she’s now 97— as one of those teachers who change the trajectory of people’s lives. “A number of people have said Rose saved their lives. I have no doubt about that,” he said. San Diego Union-Tribune.

Fourth and fifth grades are considered critical times for English learners to become fully fluent. Now, LAUSD is partnering with Loyola Marymount University and the organization SEAL to train teachers to better develop those students’ English skills. EdSource.

Declining enrollment has school officials in the Coachella Valley worried about a big loss in state funding. Desert Sun.

A high school in rural Northern California has launched an investigation into students’ social media accounts after photos began circulating online of students with swastikas and SS logos drawn on their chests. Sacramento Bee.

A tiny, bilingual bookstore in San Francisco is taking a stand to improve representation of Latinos in children’s books. “We want our children to really get to love books and their own culture and to understand that their country can provide them with dreams [of becoming] doctors, engineers and architects,” said Jorge Argueta, a poet who co-owns Luna’s bookstore with his wife. San Francisco Chronicle.

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Have feedback? Ideas? Questions? Story tips? Email me. And keep in touch on Twitter.


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