Last week, New York City public school kids had two days off for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Today they have Monday off for Columbus Day and Wednesday for Yom Kippur.
Earlier in September, schoolchildren were home on the Muslim holiday of Eid Al-Adha, added to the calendar in 2015, and summer school programs were closed for Eid al-Fitr. Schools were also shuttered for the wintertime Asian holiday of Lunar New Year. Now a Hindu group is lobbying to add Diwali to that list.
Is there any logical reason not to respect all holy days? Surely, no widely-celebrated religious or cultural holiday holds moral superiority over another.
According to NYC estimates, about 15% of students in the public school system celebrate Lunar New Year, while roughly 1 in 10 are Muslim. Currently the Hindu population stands at 1 in 16. Is there some magic number of celebrants before Diwali makes the big time? And are we really going to split hairs like this?
Originally Christian holidays — Christmas and Easter — were designated public-school holidays due to the demographics of the country. Now many schools simply call them non-denominational Winter or Spring breaks. In NYC, Jewish holidays became days off in public schools due to the number of Jewish teachers. But even Tablet Magazine recognizes that this is no longer the case.
Although students of all faiths and ethnicities are allowed to request excused absences for religious or cultural holidays, many parents are still reluctant to risk it. This is because when it comes to applying to middle and high-schools, attendance is a huge part of the equation that counts towards whether or not a child gets accepted at their first choice institution. (Another reason why specialized high schools are so valuable: they only look at test scores, making absences irrelevant.)
So why not solve the problem by giving all students the equivalent of personal days? If the DOE offered each student one personal day per month, this would add up to ten days during the academic year. Families could use them one at a time, a few at a time, or save up for a holiday like the month-long Ramadan. (My son reported that the fasting kids in his PE class during Ramadan mostly spent the period “trying not to die.”)
By letting parents choose which days to take off, schools will send the message that they value all cultures equally.
To confirm that point, the DOE should adopt a policy that clarifies that as long as these days are cleared in advance and the appropriate work is made up, the absences will not go on the student’s record. How is that for progressive support of multi-culturalism and not punishing kids for expressing their ethnic and religious pride?
For parents who remain worried that their children will fall behind due to losing a few days of instruction, the reality is that kids forfeit days to illness all the time without catastrophic consequences. And, remember, these absences will be cleared in advance, and students will be able to make up all their work. (At my other son’s school, the principal was moved to write a strongly-worded letter urging parents NOT to send their sick child in merely on the basis of fear of absenteeism.)
The final obstacle might be teachers, who also deserve to have their religious days off. But considering that no one cultural group currently dominates the profession the way it once did, odds are it shouldn’t cause too much of a staffing shortage. Additionally, at any school where a solid proportion of teachers and students are absent at the same time, arrangements can be made to combine classes in the same subjects for kids who are present. After all, what’s a little inconvenience in the name of diversity?
Many residents of NYC — indeed, many residents of America — are currently looking for ways to prove that all people are valued and appreciated. What better way to make that clear than by letting all – not just some – celebrate their Holy Days without penalty?