MORTON — The Morton School District calendar committee faces a conundrum each time it pieces together a schedule for the upcoming school year.

With first-semester finals at Morton High School given before Christmas break, and with the first and second semesters across the district needing to have as close to the same number of school days as possible, how early in August does the first semester have to begin?

For the 2020-21 school year, the answer is Aug. 10. That's the first day for teachers. The first day for students, a half-day, is Aug. 11. The first full day for students is Aug. 12.

The Aug. 10 start ties for the earliest in district history with the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years, which also had an Aug. 10 teacher in-service day.

School Board members voted unanimously this month to approve the 2020-21 school year calendar, but not without some debate.

"I don't like starting school this early. It's still summer. But I understand why we have to do it," said board member Bart Rinkenberger.

Board President Shad Beaty said based on opinions he's heard, the community is split on whether to have first-semester finals before or after Christmas break.

"Having finals before the break doesn't give us much wiggle room in the calendar," Beaty said.

Board member David Cross sides with those who like finals before the break.

"Kids forget things when they're removed from the classroom for two weeks," he said. "Plus, the weather is usually better in mid-May, when school gets out for the year, than it is in mid-August."

Assistant Superintendent Craig Smock said finals are sometimes a paper or project. Having to do them during the break would take away from family time during the holidays, he said.

"Having finals before the break is better for kids and teachers," said Superintendent Jeff Hill.

First-semester finals next school year will be Dec. 17 and 18, 2020. Christmas break will begin the next day, and students will return to class Jan. 4, 2021.

Morton switched to having first-semester finals before instead of after the break in the 2010-11 school year.

A special committee of high school administrators and teachers made that recommendation, and the board approved a calendar with those changes.

Smock said a survey of area high schools done last year revealed that all have a before-the-break finals schedule.

The list included East Peoria, Metamora, Canton, Pekin, Limestone, Dunlap, Washington, Peoria High, Tremont, Deer Creek-Mackinaw and Eureka.

"I'm not aware of any area high schools that have first-semester finals after the break," Smock said.

Morton High School graduation next school year will be May 16, 2021.

Second-semester finals for the rest of the high school students will be May 18 and 19, 2021, and the last day of school will be May 19, 2021, with the teachers' last day May 20, 2021, unless emergency days are needed.

A change in Morton's 2020-21 school year calendar is certain to make a lot of students happy.

The regular first Wednesday of the month half-day of school for students for a teacher in-service, Sept. 2, 2020, was moved to the Friday of Morton Pumpkin Festival weekend (Sept. 18, 2020).

High school and Morton Junior High School students will be dismissed at 11 a.m., Lettie Brown Elementary School students at 11:45 a.m., and Grundy, Jefferson and Lincoln elementary school students at 11:55 a.m.

Smock said there are few reasons for the switch, most of them involving Jefferson, which is adjacent to festival venues.

"The street in front of Jefferson is closed on that Friday, and the festival craft fair is being set up across the street from the school," he said. "All this makes student pickup at Jefferson very difficult.

"We're doing an early release so students are dismissed before some of that chaos. We'll see how it goes. I imagine students across the district will like getting an early start on the festivities."

Morton's calendar committee includes six administrators and six teachers.

The committee recommends a school year calendar to the board, which decides to approve or not approve it.

Steve Stein can be reached at (248) 224-2616 or stevestein21@yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.