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February 7, 2017 8:49 am

Philadelphia School District Reduces Vacation Days for Jewish Holidays

avatar by Johanna Markind

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The Philadelphia skyline. Photo: Wikipedia.

The Philadelphia skyline. Photo: Wikipedia.

The Philadelphia School District has approved an unusual two-year calendar change that cuts one day from the Rosh Hashanah recess starting in 2018-2019, and shortens Spring Break. It also starts the school year earlier; thus, in 2018-19, classes will begin August 27 and end on June 4, thereby bypassing two Muslim holidays.

For many years, including 2016-17, Philadelphia schools have been closed for both days of Rosh Hashanah, and for Yom Kippur. The reasons were practical: Many public school teachers were Jewish, and so were quite a few students. It made sense to close schools rather than find a large number of substitute teachers, or teach with many students absent.

Due to the new calendar, “Many Jewish teachers will be absent on the second day of Rosh Hashanah,” said Sharon Hoffberg, a mother of two public-school students. “Principals will be scrambling to find subs. Plus, who knows how many kids will be absent because of the holiday? Even worse is their proposal to cut spring break in half,” she opined.

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Speaking off the record, a Jewish Philadelphia teacher agreed, while noting that there were not as many Jewish teachers as there used to be. The same teacher also observed that the week-long spring break generally enabled Jewish teachers to be off during the beginning of Passover — depending on when Passover fell on the calendar. But the teacher noted that depending on the year, the shortened Spring Break will change that.

School district deputy chief of communications Lee Whack said that the calendar changes were made on December 15, after an open process that included members of the Jewish community.

However, neither teachers nor parents were formally notified of the change or asked for comment, and the school district did not specifically flag its intention to reduce the Rosh Hashanah holiday.

Whack stated the school district did not know how many of its teachers or students are Jewish. The 2009 Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia estimated the city itself had 66,800 Jews.

Cheryl Logan, the school district’s chief of academic support, explained that the change “means more consistent, uninterrupted weeks of schooling” earlier in the year. Many other Pennsylvania school districts and most city charter schools start before Labor Day, Logan said.

Noting that many schools lack working air-conditioning, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT)  has expressed concern about starting school in August. “The bigger buildings are exceptionally hot especially on the second floor,” commented PFT communications director George Jackson.

Indeed, Philadelphia public schools were closed one day last September due to excessive heat. A facility condition assessment report released on January 27, 2017, stated the school district needs $282,000,000-worth of repairs to its cooling generating systems.

Another thing the calendar change does is to accommodate two three-day Muslim holidays. In 2017-18, Eid al-Adha is expected to fall on Labor Day weekend; Philadelphia schools start the following Tuesday, September 5. School also ends Tuesday, June 12, 2018; Eid al-Fitr is expected to begin Friday, June 15. In 2018-19, Eid al-Adha should begin Wednesday, August 22, and school starts the following Monday, August 27. That year, school ends on Tuesday, June 4, 2019, and Eid al-Fitr is expected to begin on Wednesday, June 5.

Whack denied that the calendar change had any connection to the Muslim holidays. Nevertheless, on May 31, 2016, Philadelphia school district superintendent Dr. William Hite, Mayor Jim Kenney and Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr., announced the school district would add Muslim holidays to the calendar.

“I’m honored and proud to announce that the school district fully intends to honor the eid celebrations for the many Muslim students and staff that celebrate these holidays,” said Hite. He explained that the 2016-17 academic calendar had already been finalized, so the change would be implemented in future years.

Lending his support, Mayor Kenney observed, “Our city was built on the idea that while we may be different in nationality and ethnicity, the city welcomes all to worship and practice the faiths of our culture or our choosing.”

Whack did not answer questions about whether the school district knew how many students or teachers are Muslim. Back in 2013, Temple University professor Khalid Blankinship estimated that there were 30,000 Muslims within the city of Philadelphia, although Councilman Jones has claimed 200,000 Philadelphians are Muslim. The latter number’s provenance is unknown, but other media have quoted 200,000 as the total number of Muslims in the entire Philadelphia metropolitan area.

According to Anti-Defamation League religious freedom counsel David Barkey, consistent with the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, “Public schools can’t close to observe a holiday, but can if there’s an appropriate secular reason. The reason usually is the level of absenteeism” that would make it unproductive to hold school on the holiday.

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  • Reb_Yaakov

    There’s no reason why the schools should have to close for Jewish holidays. They can hold classes and the teachers can simply discuss alternative topics that are not part of the regular curriculum and not required for tests or other purposes. Missing school for religious holidays would, of course, constitute an excused absence.

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