School districts can start counting hours of instruction when developing their school calendars, after the Board of Regents on Monday approved new rules aimed at providing greater scheduling flexibility for schools.
The change shifts the minimum required instruction time for students to an hours-based system and clarifies when districts can and cannot count time as instructional.
“Any flexibility these folks can give us to help our kids succeed is alright by me,” said Pat Michel, superintendent of Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery BOCES, which helps set a common calendar among more than a dozen districts in the BOCES region.
Under the old rules, districts were required to log 180 days of school, and each school day had to provide a minimum number of hours of instruction – five hours for students in kindergarten through sixth grade and five-and-a-half hours for students in seventh through 12th grades.
The new rule requires districts to still hold class for 180 days, but they will be held to an annual mandate of equivalent instructional hours: primary grade students must be scheduled for 900 hours of instruction over the school year, while secondary students must be scheduled for 990 hours of instruction.
The shift to counting hours makes it easier for districts to schedule half-days for parent-teacher conferences as well as scheduling time for teacher training and to respond to snow days or other unplanned emergencies.
Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring said the change also reduces some of the complexity of trying to meet the minimum-hours standard for each and every school day.
“It affords us a little bit more flexibility, but it doesn’t change things in this really substantive way,” Spring said, adding that he would support even greater flexibility, specifically regarding when the school year must start and end. “The nature of when it is that we start and end, I think, is a little contrived.”
The scheduling rule change, however, didn’t come without controversy. Some members of the Board of Regents on Monday raised concerns about union contracts that spell out when the school day must start and end. School districts with such contracts could have a hard time adjusting to the new scheduling rules, they said.
Some board members said districts could get caught between the requirements of union contracts and the risk of falling below the required annual hours, because the time between classes was not counted as instructional time under the new rule. The debate at the board meeting flared, with a top state Education Department staffer telling the Regents that districts caught in that scenario would be “defrauding the state,” if they didn’t provide the required hours of instruction.
The Regents recessed for more than 30 minutes, as they scrambled behind closed doors to keep the proposal alive. Some members and department staff pointed out the hundreds of districts that were ready to move forward with an hours-based system. Ultimately, the Regents approved the rule change and directed Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to assist any districts struggling to transition to the hours-based method of counting instruction.