School Committee Drop Religious Holidays from Calendar, Start Year Post Labor Day

Photo: Speaker at the School Committee meeting. Dr. David Alper is at right.

A year after joining most neighboring communities by adding Yom Kippur and keeping Good Friday as school holidays, the Belmont School Committee did a complete “about face” and voted on Tuesday, March 22 to rid the 2016-17 school calendar of all days off for religious observation.

The board voted 5-0 to strip out existing Christian and Jewish observations which were installed on a one-year “pilot” basis. 

The reversal came after the committee and School District heard from a large number of parents – including many first-generation Asian residents – who declared the policy disruptive to the educational process and did not reflect the growing diversity within Belmont’s schools.

“I would hate for the message to be that Belmont hates religion” but rather a vote is a nod to the growing pluralism in the district, said School Committee member Tom Caputo. 

“This is about being respectful and not anti-holiday,” said member Lisa Fiore. “That’s the headline, that we must respect you whether you are 87 percent or three percent of the population,” she said.

“But we also need to make steps towards making it as easy as practically possible to observe religious holidays,” Caputo said, saying the district should now embrace the opportunity to explain why these days are important and why students observe them. 

Before this year, district policy was Jewish students were not “penalized” for taking the High Holidays as an unexcused absence. 

The board also decided, 3-2, to support taking an official day off for the quadrennial Presidential election day including the one this November for “safety concerns” as three elementary schools – Winn Brook, Butler, and Burbank – are home to one of eight precinct polling locations. 

In a separate decision, the committee bowed to parents by rejecting a proposal to start the school year before Labor Day on the last week in August. Sponsored by Belmont Superintendent John Phelan and backed by district teachers and several national studies, starting pre-Labor Day provides an easier transition into the school year by “easing” into educating then having a three-day Labour Day holiday before moving directly into teaching post-Labor Day. But family vacation and summer plans trumped the idea on an online survey.

Residents spoke to keep the current “pilot” schedule including Dr. David Alper, who led the drive last year to recognize Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which is the holiest day of the year in Judaism, which a significant number of students observe.

Alper stressed the nature of the observance, a day of fasting and prayer in Temple and at house, which requires students to miss a day early in the school year – the high holiday occurs between early September to mid-October – and despite assurances from principals, teachers will schedule tests and new work on and after that day.

But for the sizable number of first-generation Asian residents – an unusual step of engagement from a group largely in the background in town politics and policy – who sent statements to the Superintendents office and voted to end all religious observations on an online poll, the issue was educational rather than spiritual. 

Speaking before the committee and after the meeting with the Belmontonian, Jie Lu said what brought Chinese, Korean, and South Asian parents to speak out on the issue was its direct impact on the educational process.

While noting the importance of religion in many person lives, Lu said he is supportive of parents taking children out of school and teachers taking a personal day to celebrate with their family.

“But I don’t agree [to close] the entire system because it’s disruptive and a lot of [a] burden for lots of other families,” said the Concord Avenue resident and parent of children in the district. 

Phelan and some school committee members noted that disruptions could continue these days as a significant number of teachers have expressed a wish to take off on Good Friday and to a lesser extent Yom Kippur. While the remaining students will be in school, it won’t be a “typical” day with no new work or exams and substitute teachers employed.

Other parents spoke of the exclusion of other “not-too-big-groups” that celebrate important religious dates such as Ramadan for Muslims or cultural celebrations like Chinese New Year in which celebrants are expected to stay up all night “which would be hard for children to attend then school the next day.”

Judi Hamparian said by adding one religion’s observation, such as Good Friday, it would “be opening a Pandor’s box” if the district would attempt to be as inclusive as it should, noting the Armenian Genocide is an important historical event that many in Belmont observe as a solemn occasion.

“Why not also a day [for recognizing the geneocide]?” she said. 

After the vote outside the meeting, Lu and Alper discussed their positions.

“We are not trying to argue should we have holiday or [not]. The important thing is how do we observe the religious and how do we let the children know there are different religions, and everyone should respect them,” said Lu. 

“The major concern is that we will have soon too many religious celebrations and that we disrupt the education,” he said. 

While there will be a break in the teaching with children and students out, Alper believes religious observations “is an opportunity for educating these kids that will last a lifetime.”  

“I don’t mind seeing [Yom Kippur] not observed as long as “the school committee and superintendent follow through by acknowledging these holidays and especially in the elementary schools that these children are taught that David and Rachel are not here today because they need to be in temple and fast and Mr. Lu’s children will not be in school because they are celebrating New Year,” said Alper, who said he will be vigilant that the committee follows through on its promise. 

“I agree that if the kids learn then they can tell their parents. That’s how I know about Yom Kippur, my kids told me because their teacher told them,” said Lu. 

“We need to make this less a calendar change and make it a teachable moment,” said Alper. 

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