Jonathan Pope, who chairs the Gloucester School Committee, is right when he says that the committee and others school officials simply cannot structure the school calendar around every holy day or holiday involving virtually every religion.
And it’s nice to note that students who stay out of school to mark a religious holiday or other observance important to them and their families are granted an “excused absence” and are not penalized.
Nonetheless, it’s unfortunate that the first day of the upcoming Gloucester school year — Sept. 4 — falls on what amounts to the first day of the Jewish high holy days of Rosh Hashana. And while a shift to the next day, Sept. 5, wouldn’t achieve anything — Rosh Hashana begins at sundown on the 4th, with the 5th as the first full day — the fact is it’s a time frame for which the city could have and should have easily accounted.
Indeed, if Gloucester schools ever considered opening the week prior to Labor Day — as both the Rockport and Manchester Essex Regional school districts are doing, with classes starting Aug. 28 — this would have been the year to do so.
For, despite the excused absence policy — and despite the fact that, as Pope concedes, the first day, or first three days, of any school are more orientational than time spent on learning — the Sept. 4 opening has, as Temple Ahavat Achim Rabbi Steven Lewis notes, put local Jewish families in a bind when it comes to deciding whether school or their family holy days should take priority during the important dawn of a new year. That’s both for the schools, and for the Jewish community, for whom Rosh Hashanah essentially serves as a new year’s day.
Pope is absolutely right when he notes that school officials, when considering their own priorities, must look first to the full year’s learning schedule, with an eye toward the state’s testing scheduled and all-powerful Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System — or MCAS — exams in the spring. And, yes, school officials everywhere luck out when it comes to stepping aside for Catholic/Christian holy days and holidays such as Christmas — long the centerpiece for the end-of-year school vacations — and Easter, which, of course, always falls on a Sunday.
But school officials who frankly didn’t seem to recognize Rosh Hashanah indeed owe an explanation as to why they would then grant an off day or even half day for Good Friday when it falls next April 18.
It will be some time — Sept. 7, 2021, in fact — before the Jewish high holy days coincide with the schools’ opening time frame again. So this is not an issue city school officials need to address in the immediate future.
But it would have been nice if they recognized the need and easy chance to do so this time — and the message of non-diversity they have sent by keeping the current opening day in place.