Opinion: School Officials Should Preserve Religious Holidays

Once again, the Acton public and Acton-Boxborough regional school committees are debating the merits of holding school on three religious holidays.

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.)

















Mark Howell November 29, 2012 at 02:31 PM
If a significant number of teachers will be absent, it is justification not to hold school.
Liz Noonan November 29, 2012 at 03:08 PM
While I believe in that our schools should honor a students right to observe their own holidays, I also believe in the separation of church and state. I also don't think it's a bad thing for other students to notice if you are Jewish, Catholic or Muslim, this adds to the fabric of our communities and lives. Children tend to be more curious and may ask questions, but they aren't looking to pass judgment based on religious beliefs. As someone who was raised Catholic I get the depth of passion for religion, but I don't think this is a school issue but rather a family and cultural one. There are many religions and cultures with holidays that we don't observe by not going to school, and I think that should be the same for all. Keep the church and state separate from school, as it should be.
Steve Kaplan November 29, 2012 at 03:41 PM
I agree with Liz. Separation of Church and State. Ms. Borghesani states that her family is "NOT home sleeping and/or hanging out" on the Jewish holidays but does not state what they are doing on Good Friday. Families should be allowed to celebrate their religious holidays without penalty if they chose while the schools remain open.
James November 29, 2012 at 04:29 PM
With all due respect, this is simply solving a problem that does not exist. For the last 100 years we have successfully educated our children AND given them the respect of their religous holidays. What is driving the change? Some misguided need to quote the abstract concept of "separation of church and state" in order to disadvantage all those who practice their religon? To what end? So the teachers and students can get out of school three days earlier? I guarantee you that the unions are not agreeing to teaching three additional days as part of the proposal. So we are only talking about hurting religous kids so the school year can end earlier. What a crappy tradeoff. Who could think that is a good idea except those hostile to religon, or at least to majority religons. We are politically correct in all topics at our schools EXCEPT when a student is a Christian or a Jew and wants nothing more than the respect of their community, which they have received for decades. This is a huge mistake and terrible public policy that will negatively impact a large population, for no corresponding benefit.
Justin November 29, 2012 at 06:21 PM
Seperation of Church and State isn't the issue here. It's a logistical issue. How many students and teachers would miss school on those days and what problems would be caused by their absence? What are the benefits of ending school 3 days earlier? Does it save money or something? If it saves the town a significant amount of money and causes a small percentage of the students and teachers to be inconvenienced, we should get rid of the holidays. If that's not the case, then leave them. Unfortunately, this article is mostly about people's feelings, so I can't make an informed decision.
Liz Noonan November 29, 2012 at 09:05 PM
It's not about being hostile towards religion. It's about RESPECTING other cultures/diversities. Just take a look at these Indian holidays - we have a large communities of families from India. January - 26 Thursday Republic Day February - 5 Sunday Milad-Un-Nabi ( Id-E-Milad ) (Birthday of Prophet Mohammad) February - 20 Monday Maha Shivratri March - 08 Thursday Holi April - 05 Thursday Mahavir Jayanthi April - 06 Friday Good Friday May - 01 Tuesday May Day May - 06 Sunday Buddha Purnima August - 10 Friday Krishna Janmastami August - 15 Wednesday Independence Day August - 20 Monday Id-Ul-Fitr September - 19 Wednesday Ganesh Chaturthi October - 02 Tuesday Mahatma Gandhi Jayanthi October - 24 Wednesday Vijaya Dashami October - 27 Saturday Bakri Id ( Idul Zuha ) November - 13 Tuesday Diwali November - 25 Sunday Muharram November - 28 Wednesday Guru Nanak Jayanthi December - 25 Tuesday Christmas What about these holidays? Are they any less important because they aren't Jewish or Catholic holidays? Of course not. So - church and state - separate for a reason and that is being respectful, not selfish.
James November 29, 2012 at 09:26 PM
Liz - I agree that there are many more religous communities in Acton these days, and I think that is great, we are a better community as a result. I am ignorant of which of their holidays are the equivelent of the traditional "big" days that have been on the calendar for generations. I am quite open to those growing communities having the opportunity to ask for similar status for 1 or 2 days to be recognized. I am not sure what quantity of students impacted rises to the standard of a school-wide day off, but I am sure that we could handle that thoughtful discussion. I just hate that our community, when facing with a good thing, we answer that new diversity with an intolerant response of "take away the long held tradition because we can't handle 2 more days for religion X". If it snows for two extra days, we somehow survive that monumental challenge. But we can't figure it out to support kids with real religous conflicts? It seems like we are giving up before we even try. While I would be ticked off if we took away Good Friday (my religous holiday) but kept the Jewish days on the calendar, I would never, ever, advocate to take their days away "just to be fair". I think anyone having support for their kids practicing their religous beliefs with as little stress as possible is better than no one having their kids feel that support. I would hope everyone, in every religion, would feel the same way. Supporting someone is still better than screwing everyone.
Liz Noonan November 29, 2012 at 10:15 PM
James, You make some excellent points. There should be some dialogue about this. But how to pick one cultural or religious holiday as "the" holiday? Public forum is a good way to do this, but when you are dealing with minority groups, some who are not English speaking, it can be tricky. That can be a very unwelcome feeling for people in that position. Why not honor the holiday with some acknowledgment and education on the day and allow the families to decide wether or not this deems a day they should take off from work or school? I also feel strongly that we have church and state separate for this very reason, but maybe that over-simplifies matters for the public at large.
Katy G. November 30, 2012 at 02:34 AM
The list Lyz provides is not a list of 'Indian' holidays. It includes Muslim, Buddhist, Christian and Hindi holidays, some important, some not so important. For instance, a 'republic day' or an independence day on any day other than July 4th sound like state holidays which have nothing to do with religion. From what I can see, if any religious group becomes so populace in Acton that they feel that a school day during a religious holiday would negatively impact their family they can petition the school board to see if that day can be included if the impact is greater than can be tolerated. By shutting the door on all religious holidays this becomes impossible. It often appears that sensitivity to other religions is transparently couched in intolerance toward Judaism and Christianity. The majority of people in this country are still of Jewish and Christian heritage in spite of the aggressive efforts of progressives in our society. Philosophy dictates culture. This country would be a very intolerant place indeed if Christians and Jews were made to feel that they couldn't openly practice their faith.
Betsy G November 30, 2012 at 11:39 PM
The point is not to recognize these holidays in school OR to take off the "big ones" out of respect for the holiday. It's the fact that on certain days the religion does not allow for attending school. It is two days in the Jewish year, usually only one of which falls on a school day. If there are days like that that affect other religions--where there is critical mass of teachers and students who can't be in school--then school should not be in session those days. I agree that it is not a church and state issue at all but a matter of practicality and fairness. The school committee can say all they want that there is a strong policy in place to support kids who take off these days, but I will believe it when I see it. Teachers do not want to hold their other kids back to accommodate the kids who will miss their lessons, and they shouldn't be in the position to dumb down the day so the others won't fall behind.


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