BERRIEN SPRINGS — Berrien County school districts have received their waiver to start school before Labor Day this fall, but it remains to be seen whether individual districts will actually do it.
The Berrien Regional Education Service Agency hosted a public hearing on the issue Tuesday afternoon. The hearing featured remarks from Chad Urchike of the Michigan Department of Education, Berrien RESA Superintendent Kevin Ivers and two local superintendents.
Urchike spoke via telephone to the dozen or so people in attendance and granted the three-year waiver at the conclusion of the 45 minute hearing. “Districts can choose to implement the waiver at their discretion,” he said. “State law only says that districts can’t be in session on the Friday before Labor Day.”
Berrien Springs Superintendent Dave Eichberg has chaired the Berrien County Superintendents’ calendar committee since last fall. He noted that superintendents have gathered information and input over the past few months in anticipation of applying for the waiver.
“I want to make sure there’s clarity,” he said after the waiver was granted. “This is not automatic. It is a local decision in the individual districts to choose.”
The waiver decision didn’t sit too well with the two St. Joseph residents who spoke during the hearing. They didn’t want to see the waiver granted and then expressed hope that the St. Joseph district won’t use it, or will delay it a year.
St. Joseph High School junior Elise Voglewede said she is a sixth-year Mackinac Island Honor Scout and has served with the Mackinac Island Governor’s Honor Guard during the 10 days before Labor Day the last five years, and wants to do it again this year. Honor guard members are responsible for flags, serve as guides and take part in service projects.
“I have learned so many life lessons and skills that will only be used throughout high school but throughout adulthood as well,” she said. “If the pre-Labor Day start waiver is signed and in effect for the 2020-21 school year I will no longer be able to represent Southwest Michigan and the state through this amazing service program.”
She said her local Girl Scout troop has been participating in the program for past 37 years and she’d like to see the tradition continue, not only for herself but for those coming after her. She noted that the service not only teaches leadership skills but also allows participants to be eligible for college scholarships and military opportunities.
Similarly, Barb Lannert of Beach House Rentals said her business will be hurt if school starts before Labor Day. “I’d like to see school continue to start post-Labor Day,” she said. “We will lose significant rentals if school starts before Labor Day.”
She said rentals already fall off in mid-August due to Illinois and Indiana schools starting before Labor Day. She added that she’d also lose some teenage workers who wouldn’t be able to work for her in those last summer weeks if they have to be back in school.
Eichberg and Niles Superintendent Dan Applegate said a key reason why they and many other local superintendents favor the waiver is to improve learning opportunities for students. They said that the goal in starting school before Labor Day is to better align K-12 schedules with those of Andrews University and the two area community colleges.
Eichberg noted that the number of dual-enrolled, career technical education and Early Middle College students continue to increase. This year, 2,791 students are in CTE programs, 622 students are dual-enrolled at one of the community colleges, and more than 150 students are in the Early Middle College program.
He said the superintendents’ calendar committee will now work with local districts as they make decisions regarding what each wants to do this fall, as well as in the fall of 2021 and 2022. They will also continue to meet and make recommendations to align other parts of the calendar, including spring break and other holidays.