Baltimore County considers keeping schools open on Jewish holidays

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

For the first time in more than two decades, Baltimore County students could be attending school on two Jewish holy days next September.

Squeezed by a gubernatorial mandate requiring the school year to begin after Labor Day and end by June 15, school officials around the region are finding that fluctuations in the 2018-2019 calendar make it difficult to accommodate spring break and the Jewish holy days that students have ordinarily had off.

In Baltimore County and other districts still formulating their school calendars, that could mean school will be open on Rosh Hashanah, which next year begins at sundown Sept. 9, and Yom Kippur, which starts at sundown Sept. 18. They are the High Holy Days, two of the most important observances in the Jewish calendar.

The Baltimore County school board is scheduled to vote on next year’s school calendar in the coming weeks. Anne Arundel County school officials have been discussing staying open for the two Jewish holy days. Baltimore, which does not have a large Jewish population in its public schools, has not closed on those days.

School systems are looking for ways to schedule the 180 school days required by state law between Labor Day and June 15, the dates set by Gov. Larry Hogan in an executive order last year.

Hogan said requiring schools to open after Labor Day and close by June 15 would give families more time together, generate more revenue for the state’s tourism industry and help keep students in the Baltimore region out of sweltering classrooms that lack air conditioning.

To meet the requirements, districts now are considering staying open during Jewish holy days on which they have closed in the past, paring down spring break and allocating fewer days for bad weather.

“It’s a puzzle,” said Brian Bassett, a spokesman for the Howard County schools.

Some districts are considering asking the state school board to allow them to stay open on President’s Day, a federal holiday.

“I think every jurisdiction is in the same situation,” said Bob Mosier, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel County school system. “We are all trying to comply with the executive order, but it is difficult in a window that is more squeezed than last year. We are having some consternation about how to do it.”

Mosier said Anne Arundel and other districts are in this predicament because they are losing three days next school year. Schools are required to be closed on Election Day in November. One of the Jewish holidays that fell on a weekend this year falls on a weekday next school year. And June 15 falls on a Saturday in 2019, meaning schools will actually have to finish by June 14.

Baltimore County is one of the few districts that has closed on the Jewish holy days and is now considering ending that practice. The county school board is considering two calendar options: One that would close schools for the Jewish holy days, and one that would keep schools open.

Baltimore County has a shorter school day than other districts, and so must open for 182 or 183 days to meet an hourly class time requirement of the law. Lengthening the school day to allow for a 180-day calendar would require renegotiating the teacher contract.

The Supreme Court has ruled that public schools may not close for religious observances, but they can shut down on religious holidays if the operations of the schools would be severely affected by significant absences of teachers and students.

School districts close for the Christian holiday of Christmas, a federal holiday, and are required by state law to be closed Dec. 24 through Jan. 1. They must also be closed on Good Friday and Easter Monday. School districts in the region have not closed for Muslim holidays.

Students who miss school for religious holidays are given excused absences and allowed to make up work. Districts avoid scheduling major school events on days when students are likely to be out for religious observances.

Most school systems do not collect information on the religious affiliation of their students or teachers, and so cannot precisely predict the impact a closure might have.

Baltimore County school board member David Uhlfelder argues that staying open might cost the school system more than $1 million to provide substitute teachers to replace those who would take those days off.

The Baltimore Jewish Council has told the school board it would prefer the schools were kept closed on the High Holy Days.

“We are concerned about both the lost learning of the students who go to school that day and the lost learning of the thousands of Jewish students who aren’t in school that day,” said Howard Libit, the council’s executive director. “We are concerned about the potential costs to taxpayers.”

Howard County hired a research firm to poll students and teachers in an effort to determine the costs of staying open on the Jewish holy days. Administrators learned that about 10 percent of its staff and 8 percent of its students are Jewish, and about three quarters of them would stay home if schools were open on those days. District leaders presented two calendar options to the school board, both of which close on the two days.

Carroll County will also close on both days. Anne Arundel and Harford counties have not finished their calendar proposals.

Many school systems have a long process of putting together the school calendar, including offering the public time to comment on the proposed calendar options, and considering options over several months.

In Baltimore County, the school board will allow the public to comment at its Oct. 10 board meeting and will take a vote on Oct. 24. Of the two calendar options the board is considering, the calendar committee, which includes staff, parents and community members, has recommended the one that keeps schools open.

If the school calendar is difficult to put together for 2018-2019 school year, Mosier said, 2020 will be far worse. That year, Labor Day falls on Sept. 7, so schools won’t open until Sept. 8 or four days later than this year. And there’s a presidential election that November.

trichman@baltsun.com

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