Baltimore County votes to keep schools closed on Jewish holidays

The Baltimore County school board voted Tuesday to approve an academic calendar that keeps schools closed next year on the Jewish High Holy Days.

The board’s decision comes after heated debate within the community about whether to require students to attend classes on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The 9-3 vote follows the order of Gov. Larry Hogan that public schools in Maryland begin after Labor Day and end by June 15. The requirement, aimed at extending the summer and boosting state tourism, has forced some districts to compress their academic calendars. Religious holidays, snow days, school breaks and teacher planning days are in competition to avoid the chopping block.

An advisory committee proposed two calendar options for the 2018-2019 school year. The board chose the one that shortens spring break to keep schools closed for the Jewish holidays.

The advisory committee had recommended the other option, which would have kept schools open on the High Holy Days but given students a break from the Thursday before Easter through the Monday after Easter.

County schools have closed for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for about two decades. Rosh Hashanah next year begins at sundown on Sept. 9. Yom Kippur begins at sundown Sept. 18.

The Baltimore Jewish Council and the Baltimore County PTA board of directors opposed opening schools on those days.

“We’re pleased the board recognized the operational needs for keeping the Baltimore County schools closed for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” said Howard Libit, the council’s executive director.

School board member David Uhlfelder estimated it would cost the school system between $300,000 and $500,000 to pay for the substitute teachers needed to fill in for Jewish teachers who take the days off.

“It’s not a religious issue. It’s a question of economics,” he said Tuesday. “If you believe money is important, you keep the schools closed.”

School board member Stephen Verch said closing for those two school days will present problems for many of the low-income students who attend county schools and rely on meals provided there.

"When the school’s not open, they don’t get anything to eat that day," he said. "Their parents, if they work, they have to alter their arrangements for their children when schools are closed."

The calendar was amended Tuesday to shift one professional development day to June 5, which is the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr. Classes are not held on professional development days.

Bash Pharoan, a Baltimore County surgeon, has been asking the board to recognize the Muslim holidays as equal for the past two decades. He said board member Kathleen Causey’s amendment represents “a step forward.”

“It is not equal, but nonetheless it is a positive step,” he said. “We just want our children to feel included. That would make a positive impact on the psyche of our children.”

The Supreme Court has ruled schools cannot close for religious reasons but may close on religious holidays if widespread absences would make it difficult to operate efficiently. Some school board members called for more updated and accurate data about the religious breakdowns of the student population.

The governor’s office said before the vote it was “outrageous” that the school board was “threatening” the Jewish holidays, and other districts have been able to approve calendars without opening on those days.

Baltimore County had difficulty meeting the governor’s requirements because state law requires schools stay open for a certain number of days and hours per year. School days in Baltimore County are shorter than in other districts.

The Anne Arundel County school board has approved a calendar that keeps schools open on Rosh Hashanah but closes them for Yom Kippur. The Harford County calendar, to be voted on in December, would close for both the Jewish holidays. In Howard County, both calendar options under consideration keep schools closed on the two holidays.

Baltimore city has never closed schools on the Jewish holy days.

Hogan has said lengthening the summer break gives families extra time together, generates more revenue for the state’s tourism industry and limits the amount of time students in the Baltimore region spend in sweltering classrooms without air conditioning.

“There’s going to be continue to be conversations about the calendar,” Libit said. “Baltimore County found a way and I’m pleased that they did.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

trichman@baltsun.com

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