“School’s Closed Today! It’s the Law”

Photo credit: Your Teen Magazine

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Now that two of my grandchildren are in public school, rather than being home-schooled, I am more attuned to what is going on in public school.

Last Friday, I was in Northern Virginia visiting them because they were off from school. Although I was happy to get the extra time with them, I was ranting about the absurdity of a school holiday only two weeks after school had opened and in face of the impending Labor Day holiday. My grandson informed me it was the law. I protested that it couldn’t be, but he showed me that it was.

It is indeed the law. When the 2019 General Assembly repealed the “Kings Dominion law,” requiring schools to wait until after Labor Day to open (Sec. 22.1-79.1), it substituted authorization for schools to open no more than 14 days before Labor Day, with the stipulation that any school division that opened before Labor Day “shall close each school in the school division from the Friday immediately preceding Labor Day through Labor Day.”

The Superintendent of Fairfax Public Schools had posted a message on the public school website available to parents announcing the closing and explaining, in effect, that “it’s not our fault, Richmond is making us do it.”

On its face, it does not make sense for a school division to close schools for a day after being open for only two weeks, especially when the next Monday is the Labor Day holiday. After I viewed the discussion of the bill in committee, the answer became clear.

The bill was a compromise between school districts that wanted total flexibility to set their schedules and the hospitality industry that needs student workers during the Labor Day holiday.

This was one of those bills over which there was fierce fighting in the trenches, out of public view, by lobbyists for the special interests involved. In their brief comments as they made the traditional parade before the committee endorsing the substitute bill, lobbyists alluded to long negotiations among local governments, school district representatives, and hospitality industry representatives. The school division lobbyists were rather bitter, saying they had not agreed to the substitute bill and felt they had been ambushed while they were still negotiating.

As is usually the case with bills affecting localities, there are exceptions built in. The previous statute had authorized waivers for the requirement to delay opening until after Labor Day. Over the years, numerous school divisions had taken advantage of those waivers. Other localities had gotten exemptions through language in the Appropriation Act. The school division lobbyists had pushed hard for “grandfathering” all the previous waivers and exemptions. As legislators are wont to do, they agreed. As a result:

  • 77 school divisions may begin the school year more than 14 days before Labor Day and do not have to close on the Friday before Labor Day;
  • 11 school divisions may begin the school year more than 14 days before Labor Day and, if they begin before Labor Day, must close schools on the Friday before Labor Day;
  • 44 school divisions may not begin schools more than 14 days before Labor Day, and if they begin before Labor Day, must close schools on the Friday before Labor Day.

In addition, the Board of Education may exempt year-round instructional program from these requirements. The list of school divisions in each category can be found here.

In summary, if your grandchild or child tells you that his or her school is closed on the Friday before Labor Day, it is probably the law.