On Thursday night, over 300 Howard County residents of every age, race and religion filled the Board of Education's meeting room and three overflow spaces to hear and give public testimony about Superintendent Renee Foose's proposed 2016-2017 academic calendar. Dozens of members of the local Jewish community spoke out against a proposal to keep schools open on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for the first time since 1979.
"My dad told me that schools have been closed on these Jewish holidays his entire life, so I asked him why it was going to change now," said nine-year-old Brandon Goldman in his testimony to the board. Brandon is in fourth grade at Waterloo Elementary School. "He said he read the report about it and still doesn't know why. It seems like there should be a reason."
The Howard County school board voted to close schools on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in 1979 because the school system found that staff were absent at a rate of 12 percent on the two Jewish high holidays. Option one of the proposed 2016-2017 calendar would continue this 36-year-old policy. Option two would close schools only on state-mandated holidays, which include Christmas, Good Friday and Easter Monday, but neither Rosh Hashanah nor Yom Kippur.
"The calendar report explains option two, to open school on our holiest days, as an effort to be equitable to all students and staff in light of changing school demographics," said Rabbi Susan Grossman, president of the Howard County Board of Rabbis, referring to a written report about the calendar proposal.
According to the report, the 2016-2017 Academic Calendar Planning Committee, which is charged with making recommendations about the school calendar to the superintendent, consisted of more than 20 school system staff members and educators, six parents and one student.
"However," Grossman continued, "the report never shows, nor even implies, that increased cultural diversity results from a decreased Jewish population."
Leaders in the county's Jewish community argued that the school system did not have data to support removing the Jewish high holidays from the academic calendar.
"I have thoroughly read the Committee Report on the proposed academic calendars, and what is glaringly obvious is that sufficient data has not been collected to make a change regarding the Jewish holidays," said Michelle Ostroff, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Howard County. "That work should include a survey of various cultural and religious communities regarding absences on their most important days."
Rabbi Grossman of Beth Shalom suggested that the board maintain school closings on the Jewish high holidays for the 2016 to 2017 academic calendar while collecting the data necessary to make a decision about school holidays for later years.
"If helpful, the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Chinese communities are ready to undertake a joint study to assess absences on our most important holidays," she said. "The Jewish community advocates respect and accommodation for all religious and cultural traditions. That is why we support school closure not only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur but also on Eid al-Adha, Eid al-Fitr, Diwali and Lunar New Year — in total only 6 days over the entire school year."
Dipak Srinivasan, a Howard County parent of Indian origin, used a similar argument about the lack of data to testify in support of option two. He was one of the only speakers to do so.
"We're all scared of making decisions based on a lack of data. But making a decision to deviate from state-mandated holidays is also a decision based on a lack of data. And it's a discriminatory decision against all non-Jewish people, me included," he said. "If we make a decision to uphold the current calendar, you're making a statement based on lack of data that we endorse Judeo-Christian holidays more so than other holidays. Is that really the decision we want to make?
Other community members argued that the state mandate for school closings already favors Christian holidays.
"According to the committee report, closing public schools for religious purposes is prohibited by state law," said parent Fern Cohen. "Though one can question, why Christmas Day, Good Friday and Easter Monday are state-mandated public school holidays? Are these not religious school holidays?"
A few who testified pointed to other school systems that have added non-Judeo-Christian holidays to their academic calendars, as beacons of inclusiveness. In November, Montgomery County school board voted to place a professional development day on Eid al-Adha, a prominent Muslim holiday.
"Montgomery County and New York have recently added additional days on which schools will be closed to support their diverse communities, their educators and their students," said Brett Greenberger, a parent of three students in Howard County schools. "I hope our county chooses to follow a more inclusive, tolerant and supportive approach toward cultural diversity and therefore chooses to remain closed for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur."
Members of the local Chinese community urged the board to place a professional development day on Lunar New Year's eve to allow East Asians time to celebrate the holiday with their families and keep their cultural traditions alive. Lunar New Year falls on a Saturday in January 2017.
The school system placed a professional development day on the Lunar New Year in the 2015-2016 school year, but did not propose to do the same on Lunar New Year's eve for the 2016-2017 school year.
"I am always jealous of my American friends because they can spend all of their holidays with their grandparents, but my community can't," said Ryan Zhao, a third-grader at Ilchester Elementary School. "Lunar New Year lasts 15 days, but I'm not asking for 15 days...unless you're willing to give us 15 days. I'm only asking for one day so I can spend the holiday with my grandparents."
Ryan read a Chinese poem that his grandfather taught him, to drive his point home: "All alone in a foreign land, I am twice as homesick on this special holiday."
"I was talking to some middle and high schoolers that are Asian. We talked about the Lunar New Year and most kids said that they didn't do much to celebrate Lunar New Year," said Tia Yu, a sixth-grade student of Chinese origin attending Bonnie Branch Middle School. "Because they had to go to school, do homework and do other extracurricular activities, they had almost no time to celebrate their cultural holidays. Being able to have a day recognized as Lunar New Year will not only preserve our cultural heritage, but also help others to recognize our traditions and holidays."
This message ran through the words of several of the more than 40 community members who testified: that recognizing a broader range of cultural and religious groups' holidays would increase cultural awareness and inclusiveness in the Howard County community.
"Putting a professional development day on Lunar New Year's eve — it would not only create a new and better way to celebrate our culture," said Andrew Liu, a seventh-grader at Burleigh Manor Middle School, "but it would also create cultural diversity. And I think this is what Americans stand for."
"What an opportunity for a teaching, learning moment, to celebrate and understand those facets that make up not only Howard County, but our nation as well," said Stuart Berlin, president of the Columbia Jewish Congregation and a longtime educator. "With creativity and care, the school calendar could celebrate the diversity that we claim to have, and serve our students."
The Howard County Board of Education will accept written testimony from the public about the superintendent's proposed 2016-2017 academic calendar until 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 12. The board will take action on the proposal at its regular meeting on Thursday, Jan. 14. For more information, go to http://www.hcpss.org/board/.