Shannon Handwerger’s youngest daughter will be a ninth-grader next school year, as her oldest daughter enters her senior year.
Handwerger said she expects that first day of school to be an exciting one for her kids, but there’s a potential roadblock keeping the Eldersburg family from truly celebrating. Carroll County Public Schools' proposed calendar for next year begins Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021, which is during Rosh Hashana ― part of the Jewish calendar’s High Holy Days, along with Yom Kippur.
The county’s Board of Education discussed the proposed CCPS calendar for 2021-22 during its Sept. 9 meeting, and Superintendent Steven Lockard said it will be up for approval in November once the public gets a chance to provide feedback. A group from the county’s Jewish community has done so in petition form; Handwerger and Lynda Dye, another Eldersburg resident, have led a a movement called “Delay One Day” asking for CCPS to start school on Sept. 8 in 2021 to avoid any religion-related conflict.
“We really tried to just send as many letters to the board that we could, so they could realize the importance of this,” Handwerger said. "We have seen two of the board members really think it wasn’t a big deal to start school on a Jewish holiday, even though their policy says they won’t have any major events on religious holidays.
“We feel like the first day of school is a major event … To [my kids], that really is a big deal.”
The proposed school calendar for 2021-22 ends on June 10 for students (June 13 for teachers), but that includes four emergency days; if they’re not used, students' final day would be June 6. The “Delay One Day” petition calls for CCPS to factor those emergency days into its decision. Lockard said during the Sept. 9 board meeting he’s considering utilizing virtual learning on days that might have been snow days in previous years.
Dye spoke during the school board’s Sept. 23 meeting and made a plea to the board members.
“There is plenty of time to delay one day,” she said. “We are asking you, please, to delay next school year by one day. We are asking you to respect the students and staff of CCPS by not starting school on a religious holiday. No students or staff should have to choose between a major school event and their religion. No students should have to start the school year without their teachers.”
Board member Ken Kiler said during the Sept. 9 meeting that he had spoken with a few members of Carroll’s Jewish community, some who criticized last year’s decision to not be closed during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
“And in all cases the answer I got was, you made a good decision last year based on the percentage of [Jewish] population. Be consistent, and keep doing it like you’re doing,” Kiler said. “That made me feel a lot better on that part of the decision.”
Board member Patricia Dorsey said she’d like to see CCPS acknowledge both Jewish holidays on next year’s calendar.
“And I know we say, ‘Well, there’s only this small amount of people who may be affected by this.’ But we have to be sensitive, I think, I believe, to all of our populations … I think this would be one way to show respect,” Dorsey said. “I would even look at tacking on to the end of the year to get a couple of days in to respect that portion of our community who celebrates these days.”
Board of Education President Donna Sivigny suggested a caveat that any future school calendars that align with a religious date to start may be amended, but board member Tara Battaglia argued that CCPS should adhere to Code of Maryland Regulations as it has always done. That code states that schools may not be open on Saturdays, Sundays or holidays, and it includes Christmas Eve through Jan. 1 and the Friday before Easter through the following Monday as holidays.
“We follow what COMAR states,” Battaglia said. “So we technically do not sit there and say, ‘We are closing for Christmas. We are closing for Easter.’ Those days are out of our control. Those we have to do by state law.”
Battaglia said she talked last year about the dilemma that goes with trying to recognize as many religions as possible when dealing with the school calendar.
“And if we start closing school for every religion, we will never be in school. We will be in the situation we’re in now, where we’re virtual,” she said. “And I know I’m going to get some backlash for saying that and I’m sorry, but at some point … we’re following what the state rule is. We don’t close for any other specific religious holiday. We have Muslims, we have Wiccans, they’re around us. We don’t close for their holidays.
“I mean, I know we used to. But when Labor Day falls late and there’s other things in the way of everything … [we] just need to stick with what the state mandates are.”
Dye and Handwerger said they are board members of the Eldersburg Jewish Congregation, and while population numbers might be small in Carroll, the faith is a growing one in the county.
Shelly Brezicki, a teacher at Manchester Valley High School, said it’s a difficult decision to make as a staff member on whether to be there for the first day of school or miss it because of a religious holiday.
“I’d like the board to consider the importance of the first day of school, and the use of that day to build such trust and relationships with our students,” Brezicki said. “Every staff member should be in attendance on the first day of school. ... We are a small minority, and I don’t know the exact number of Jewish staff in the county. I would bet it’s not as small as maybe some people think.”
The “Delay One Day” petition aims to reach 1,000 signatures, and it was within a few dozen of that mark Wednesday afternoon.
Handwerger said the point is to raise awareness no matter what faith is being practiced.
“We’re really coming from the point of, this is not OK for any religious group. It’s not just the Jewish religion, but they shouldn’t have school on a major holiday for any religion on the very first day,” she said. “There aren’t a tremendous amount of Jewish [citizens] in the county, but there are some. Missing the first day of school for a teacher is stressful, and then for all of those students who would then have a substitute on the first day of school, that’s also an issue.”
Handwerger said she’s hopeful but not confident the school board will go against its proposed calendar. When Dye spoke at the Sept. 9 meeting, she implored board members to reconsider when the time comes for approval.
“Starting school on a Jewish holiday will be putting a target on some of our teachers’ and students’ backs,” Dye said. “Why else would a student miss the first day of school? And more importantly, a teacher? I fear our community will not honor their faith to protect themselves and their identity. ... Please, don’t make Jewish students and staff at CCPS make that decision. Delay one day.”