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Districts may drop religious holidays

By Jennifer Fenn Lefferts
Globe Correspondent / November 28, 2010

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School officials in Acton, Boxborough, and Harvard are looking at removing all religious holidays from next year’s school calendars.

Currently, classes in the districts are not held on a Christian holiday, Good Friday, and the Jewish holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana.

The Acton-Boxborough Regional School Committee is scheduled to discuss the issue and vote on next year’s calendar during its meeting Thursday night, while the Harvard School Committee has scheduled a vote for Dec. 13.

Harvard’s School Committee chairman, Keith Cheveralls, said all indications point to the board eliminating the holidays from the calendar. The committee held a meeting on the issue Monday, and discussed a proposal that calls for eliminating religious holidays, and a second policy ensuring that all students and faculty are given reasonable accommodations to observe them, he said.

“It was quite apparent that the committee has a desire to move to a model where we do not recognize religious holidays,’’ Cheveralls said.

Last year, Harvard appointed a subcommittee to study the proposal, but it was unable to reach a recommendation, he said. “It’s a very emotional issue. We’ve tried to be very thoughtful and be considerate of all views.’’

The move to drop the holidays does not appear to have as much support in the Acton-Boxborough school district, where Superintendent Stephen Mills said he has recommended making no changes to the school calendar. It would mean no classes would be held at the regional district’s junior and senior high schools on Good Friday, Yom Kippur, and Rosh Hashana.

To help the committee make a decision, the district asked parents and faculty to take a survey.

Mills said the survey, which closed on Nov. 19, found that the district would require a significant number of substitute teachers if classes are held on those holidays.

“It would be difficult but we could accommodate the Jewish holidays,’’ Mills said. “Good Friday presents a real problem in terms of my ability to manage the school system. That would be really problematic.’’

The survey found that 43 teachers would take off the Jewish holidays and 157 teachers would not work on Good Friday. On a typical day, the district uses about 15 to 20 substitutes, Mills said.

Of the 5,500 students in the middle and high school district, about 200 students would stay home on the Jewish holidays, and 300 on Good Friday, he said. The district is about 90 percent Christian and 7 percent Jewish; the remainder is other religions.

Other schools have also considered changes involving religious holidays.

In Natick, the School Committee recently approved a calendar that keeps its observance of Rosh Hashana at two days. Superintendent Peter Sanchioni had proposed reducing it to a single day. Rosh Hashana, one of the holiest days in Judaism, marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year. Some Jews celebrate the holiday for one day while others celebrate it for two days. Framingham has two days off for the holiday, while Wayland, Newton, Dover-Sherborn, and Wellesley have one.

In Cambridge, school officials have decided to cancel classes on one Muslim holiday beginning with the next school year.

In Harvard, Cheveralls said the School Committee is acting on the religious holidays issue because some residents and members question whether the system should single out any religions for special treatment. He pointed out that the town now has some 19 cultures and it would be difficult to satisfy each with a holiday.

Cheveralls said the three religious holidays were added about six years ago after school officials found that not all students were being adequately accommodated when they took days off for religious reasons. He said instead of adding religious holidays, it’s important for the district to address the issue of accommodating students.

“Maybe we need to be looking at this more broadly and from an inclusive standpoint,’’ he said.

The Acton-Boxborough Regional board has talked for the past few years about whether religious holidays should be eliminated from the calendar, said its chairwoman, Brigid Bieber.

Boxborough’s elementary school eliminated Good Friday, Yom Kippur, and Rosh Hashana from its calendar several years ago and it has worked well, Bieber said.

In Acton-Boxborough, each year the calendar has been approved with little discussion, but this year the committee decided to conduct the survey to get a sense of where parents and faculty stand.

Christmas, Bieber said, was not up for discussion because it always falls during the district’s winter break.

“To me, it’s a practical question,’’ Bieber said. “We really want to do what’s best in terms of student learning.’’

Bieber said it can be distracting for students if there are several substitutes and too many students out. On the other hand, allowing several holidays cuts into the school year, she said.

Another problem with canceling school on religious holidays is that the state requires districts to hold 180 days of classes, and most teachers prefer not to be in the classroom well into June because students lose interest.

“Once you hit mid-June, they’re done,’’ she said. “It’s hot and their ability to learn really drops.’’

Acton-Boxborough also asked parents and faculty whether they prefer school starting before or after Labor Day. Parents are evenly split; however, staff members strongly favor starting before Labor Day, the survey found.

Even though the survey is closed, Bieber said residents can still contact the School Committee to have their voices heard. Residents can e-mail their comments to abrsc@acton-ma.gov.

She also said they can attend the School Committee meeting at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the R.J. Grey Junior High School.

Harvard’s Dec. 13 meeting will convene at 7 p.m. in Town Hall.

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.