School non-holidays irk Jews, Muslims
Officials say state regs limit schedules
SCHENECTADY On the Muslims’ biggest religious holiday of the school year, school will be in session in Schenectady.
Likewise, students will be expected to show up on Rosh Hashana, a major Jewish holiday that falls the day after the first day of school.
It’s not just Schenectady — most districts have school during those holidays, although Niskayuna has changed its schedule to avoid Rosh Hashana, in deference to the large number of Jewish students there.
But there’s no such luck for the Jewish students in Schenectady. Parents are upset and unhappy — though they said it’s not as bad as last year, when the first day of school fell on Rosh Hashana.
Schenectady Superintendent Laurence Spring said this year’s calendar was set specifically to avoid that problem.
“The folks in the Jewish community let us know, having Rosh Hashana on the first day of school was problematic,” he said. “We try to be responsive.”
This year, the second day of school is Rosh Hashana.
Spring wasn’t aware of the Muslim holiday Eid-al-adha, but he said he wants to “grow” the process of developing the academic calendar each year to “ensure we’re keeping everything in mind.”
As the Muslim population grows in Schenectady, leaders want the district to offer them the same consideration as other religions. Their children will miss school on Oct. 15 this year for Eid-al-adha, one of the most important religious holidays of the Muslim faith.
“With Muslim population increasing significantly in our area as well as other areas in U.S., it seems very important” to close school on the holiday, said Shamshad Ahmad, president of the downtown Albany mosque, Masjid As-Salam.
Schenectady resident Mohammed Hafez questioned why the district could not add the Muslim days to the calendar.
“There’s only two holidays. It is very important,” Hafez said.
One holiday is at the end of Ramadan, which falls in August this year. The other is at the end of Hajj, on Oct. 15 this year.
“Back home [in Guyana] usually they celebrate three days for each holiday. The whole country. The government even takes at least two days,” Hafez said.
He added that the families he knows always let their children skip school for the holiday.
“The kids will take the holidays off, regardless,” he said.
Every day that a student misses school costs the school district money, because the state pays schools based on the number of pupils in attendance each day. That means there’s a financial reason for schools to schedule around major religious holidays.
But more importantly, students who must leave school for religious observances miss tests and important lessons.
Spring said that’s his biggest concern.
“It’s the instructional time,” he said. “Guarding our instructional time is our No. 1 priority.”
But he said it’s not as easy as it sounds to add holidays to the academic calendar. He has to “squeeze in” the required number of school days between Labor Day and the start of statewide Regents exams, and there’s not much wiggle room.
In the meantime, parents and religious leaders said children will simply skip school on Rosh Hashana and Eid-al-adha, which rank as highly as Christmas.
Rabbi Theodore Lichtenfeld of Congregation Agudat Achim said it comes with the territory as a member of a minority.
“It is inevitable, when you celebrate the minority holidays,” he said. “I would strongly encourage parents to keep children home for however many days of Rosh Hashana as they observe.”
The holiday is often observed for one day, but strict Jews observe it for two days, during which time they are not supposed to write, drive, or do other work-related activities.
Lichtenfeld said having to catch up on school work afterward can teach children a valuable life lesson.
“It does create the recognition that you make sacrifices for things you believe in,” he said.
But he added that it would be “helpful” if school districts agreed to add the first day of Rosh Hashana to the school vacation schedule.
The problem persists even at the college level. At UAlbany, classes are suspended during Rosh Hashana. But Eid-al-adha is still a mandatory school day.
Muslim students at UAlbany pushed for their holidays in 2004, and both holidays were added to the calendar. But they were taken back off a few years later on the grounds that there was not enough time left to meet the state’s required number of class days and hours per credit.
“We could not continue to accommodate the suspension of class on Muslim holidays and meet all the requirements we needed to meet,” said spokesman Karl Luntta.
He added that the college didn’t expect “high absenteeism” on Oct. 15 this year, which suggests there may not be a large Muslim student population there.
Lichtenfeld said reorganizing an academic calendar would only be reasonable when a school had a certain percentage of Jewish or Muslim students.
“I don’t expect a school with only one or two Jewish students to cancel school on Jewish holidays,” he said. “A lot of places make the effort. Especially nowadays, teachers try to be respectful — if there’s a test, you can take it on another day.”