One Thursday afternoon in December of 2010, I received a flurry of emails from local friends who had read a just-published letter intended to influence the Acton-Boxborough Regional School Committee. The author: my daughter, Jackie, then a senior at ABRHS. The topic: the proposed elimination of three religious holidays from the following year’s school calendar.
Stating that she felt a student’s perspective on the issue was “desperately needed,” my kid outlined the logistical reasons that knowingly holding school on days when a great number of students and teachers would be absent was a bad idea. She described what it was like at the high school her freshman year when widespread sickness forced a high number of staff and students to call in sick.
“To make such a change to the school’s schedule would cause countless problems, not only for religious members of the school community, but for everyone,” Jackie wrote.
Citing the stress she felt would ensue if observant students had to pick between religious customs and academics, Jackie asked, “Why should they be faced with this choice? Why should kids without religious affiliations have it easier?”
In conclusion, she wrote, “It’s hard enough to express religious views in a society that seems to value them less with each passing year. Why should school add to the burden?”
Jackie was not the only one to express a strong opinion in favor of leaving the calendar intact.
The following year, schools were closed on Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and Good Friday.
Last December, the regional and local school committees again approved a calendar that preserved the religious holidays.
But the vote was extremely close: 7-6.
A few weeks ago, local parents were notified that the draft of the calendar for the 2013-2014 school year had been finalized.
It does not include the religious holidays.
I asked AB regional school committee chairperson Xuan Kong to explain the rationale behind the change. Kong reasoned that public schools should not be closed for religious holidays unless the predicted number of staff and student absences would make holding classes untenable.
“In the past, the administration told the school committee that too many kids would be missing,” he said. “We can’t run school under those circumstances.”
The most recent polling indicates that, compared to previous years, fewer students would miss school in order to observe the religious holidays. That information, coupled with the turnover in school committee members who are free to vote according to their own biases, reignited the debate.
“The sentiment is different,” Kong said of the changing school committee composition.
He said that there is a “strong policy” in place that requires teachers to make accommodations for students who inform them ahead of time that the students will miss school for religious reasons.
“We have flexibility,” said Kong, who, last year at this time, voted against closing school for the three holidays.
Acton parent Betsy Gitelman, who said that the issue “was vetted extensively last year,” shared her views with school committee members. She explained what she experienced when her childhood community decided to hold classes on the Jewish holidays now in question, predicting a similar path for AB students:
It starts with the Jewish kids missing school on those days while school proceeds as usual. The Jewish kids miss the material and have to struggle to make it up, and their classmates suddenly start identifying which kids are Jewish.
A couple of years later, parents have complained so much that their kids are missing school (and perhaps being singled out because of their religion for the first time) that the school determines that nothing of import can occur in school on the Jewish holidays.
When the Jewish kids (and teachers) return to school after taking their holidays, everyone talks about how they did nothing the day they were out and how lucky they were to get a day off while they had to suffer in school. Resentment builds, colored with anti-Semitism.
This is what I grew up with, and in the end the School Committee in my town realized what the current AB School Committee fails to realize: it is not in the interest of the students’ education to hold school on a day when a large number of students and teachers cannot attend school without abandoning their religious values.
Gitelman echoed Jackie’s question, asking, “Does the School Committee really want children to be choosing between their schoolwork and their religion?
In conclusion, she asked the school committee to “reverse this wrongheaded course.”
Linda Borghesani, another Acton parent, expressed her point of view:
It is very hard raising a family in a town that has a minority population. School is very important to us as is observing the High Holy Days. During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, our family is attending services. The kids are NOT home sleeping and/or hanging out. They are deep in thought/prayer during services. This is especially true for Yom Kippur, a day of remembrance and a day when they fast, including not drinking any water, from sundown to sundown. They don’t participate in any other activities these days either. I do not want to have to make my children choose between school and observing their religion, nor do I feel they should have to choose. Whenever they miss even one day of school due to an illness they feel that they fall behind and get extremely stressed.
When I chose to move to Acton I purposely looked for a school system that would allow our family to observe the Jewish Holidays. Please continue keeping Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as non- school days, even if this means starting school earlier or ending later.
My family is Catholic. We observe Good Friday by fasting and attending services at our church.
I know that we’re a minority, too.
Closing school on Good Friday has been an important acknowledgement of our choice to practice our faith. For me, it’s been a source of pride knowing that religious observances are valued in this community.
It’s my fervent hope that school committee members will vote to amend the proposed 2013-2014 calendar, reinstating the religious holidays when they reconvene on Dec. 6, 2012.
(The school committee invites interested residents to send feedback to their email address by Nov. 28, 2012, and to attend their next meeting on December 6, 2012, at 7:30 p.m. in the RJ Grey Junior High library.)