School districts should consider Jewish, Muslim and Hindu holidays when setting school calendars.
The parents of 5-year-olds should not be forced to make a choice between their children attending school the first day of kindergarten and observing a religious holiday.
But that’s exactly the choice a handful of Puget Sound school districts, including Seattle Public Schools, are mandating this year by scheduling the first day of kindergarten on the Jewish holy day of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year.
The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction should be commended for joining religious leaders in advocating for paying more attention to religious equity in public schools.
This is not only a Jewish issue or a Muslim or Hindu concern; it’s about equity. This is another way school districts can demonstrate that every child matters, no matter their religious beliefs. The districts don’t need to cancel school because of religious observances, but they should avoid conflicts whenever possible.
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“Schools that plan around major religious holidays convey to all students that they are a meaningful part of their school communities and their religious traditions matter,” Superintendent Chris Reykdal wrote in a May bulletin to school districts.
Faith leaders from across Washington sent a letter to his office a few months ago, followed by a visit from Rabbi Allison Flash of Temple Beth Am in Seattle and other religious leaders. The letter asked for Reykdal’s help to encourage school districts to be more mindful of religious holidays and not schedule major events — from homecoming to exams and field trips — on days that are holy to Jews, Muslims and Hindus.
Flash included a short list of Jewish, Hindu and Muslim holy days, including one this Friday, the last day of Ramadan, Eid-al-Fitr, when Muslims usually stay home from school and work for a day of prayer, feasting, gift-giving and community.
Unfortunately, the message from OSPI came late for some districts. Seattle created its current school calendar in 2015 as part of contract negotiations with its teachers union. A district spokeswoman said a change at this late date would be nearly impossible. However, Seattle Education Association Executive Director John Donaghy said a calendar change wouldn’t be easy, but it’s not impossible. He came up with two possible ways to fix the kindergarten dilemma and called the district to start considering one of those paths. A school official called the editorial board and updated its response: a calendar change would be difficult but possible.
Another local district that received parent complaints when the tentative district calendar was released — Mercer Island — changed the date of its first day of kindergarten to accommodate its Jewish students. The Mercer Island calendar was also decided during contract negotiations years ago.
Every school district should double-check its calendars to make sure they do not have any conflicts with religious holidays. Embracing the diversity of our school communities offers a learning opportunity for all.