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Coronavirus Might Upend State Laws on School Year's Length and Timing



As more states and districts shut down in response to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, the prospect that K-12 schools will be closed for weeks or months could severely test state laws that govern how many days public schools must be in session and when they must stop and start.  And that scenario could leave major questions around how much education funding goes out to schools hanging in the balance.

On Sunday, for example, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, told CNN that he would not be surprised if the state's schools stayed closed for the rest of the academic year due to the virus, which is also known as COVID-19. On March 12, DeWine became the first governor to announce the statewide closure of K-12 schools.

Amid the scramble to take care of students and address a swarm of challenges as the virus spreads, there are also concerns that the length of many school closures may not be sufficient to slow the spread of the virus. 

See: Education Week's Map of Coronavirus and School Closures

In January, the Education Commission of the States released updated information about the minimum number of days in a school year required by law in each state, as well as state mandates for calendar dates by which schools must start and finish. ECS found the following:

  • Twenty-eight states and D.C. require 180 days in the school year.
  • Six states require fewer than 180 days of school.
  • Three states require more than 180 days of school. 
  • Four leave it up to local districts or, in the case of Ohio, "each city" according to ECS.
  • One state (Missouri) had no minimum number of school days in law. 
  • One state (Arkansas) allows it to be set by the state education agency.
  • Puerto Rico leaves the decision up to its secretary of education.
  • No information was available for seven states.

Here's that information in chart form:

Some states do address school closures in emergency situations in their laws. Child Trends, a nonprofit focused on policies affecting children's well-being, has a convenient list of such emergency policies state-by state here

And many states set parameters around the number of hours and minutes there must be in a school year. 

Thirty-five states either leave school year start and end calendar dates up to their districts or don't have any laws addressing it, according to ECS. Maryland, which has shuttered public schools until the end of the month, requires schools to finish by June 15, while North Carolina requires them to finish by June 11. If it decides to shut schools statewide, Texas has some unusual flexibility in this regard, because it requires schools to close after May 15. 

The minimum number of days matters with respect to school funding, Danny Carlson, the director of policy and advocacy at the National Association of Elementary School Principals, pointed out Sunday:

At least one governor has clarified his state's position on the number of school days required. On Friday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said that the state would waive the 180-day requirement for schools. And Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, made a similar move

In an interview, Carlson said that just as district leaders are facing tough decisions about school closures, "Governors and state chiefs also have to confront the challenges around instruction time and what local school closures would mean for their instruction time minimum, and how they want to handle that," and whether the solution is a waiver or making up those days at a future point. 

We reached out to the Council of Chief State School Officers to see what, if anything, they've told states about this so far, and we'll update this piece if we hear back. 

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told states on Thursday that she might grant "targeted waivers" from federal education requirements for student testing for schools heavily affected by the coronavirus. 

Image: Ken Hawkins

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