WESTFIELD — As another school year draws to a close, the members of the Westfield Board of Education (BOE) are debating a few amendments to the calendar in order to better meet the changing needs of the community’s increasingly diverse population.
Earlier this month, board member Sahar Aziz, part of last year’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, suggested the possibility of adding some new holidays — including Chinese New Year, Diwali (the Indian festival of lights) and Eid al-Fitr (a Muslim celebration that marks the end of Ramadan) — for the 2024-25 school calendar.
“As we know, students currently have to miss class, and sometimes their exams, for these observances. I know we have suggested to teachers that they not give exams during these times, but I don’t know how much that’s practiced,” Ms. Aziz said, speaking during the board’s May 9 meeting.
The Westfield board is not alone. Over the course of the past several years, dozens of districts across the state have modified their annual calendars to better reflect the predominant ideologies of their districts.
The New Jersey Department of Education currently recognizes more than 100 religious holidays, all of which are considered excused absences for students. Teachers and staff, however, may, depending on district policy, be required to utilize personal time for religious observances that coincide with a scheduled day of school.
Ms. Aziz, who was unable to attend two recent meetings of the BOE due to her own religious observances, said earlier this month that it may be time for Westfield to start taking a look at some new scheduling options in order to create a more “inclusive” calendar.
The state’s list of recognized holidays runs the gamut and includes everything from Christmas and Rosh Hashana to Mabon (a pagan holiday that celebrates the autumnal equinox); Zarathosht Diso (in which Zoroastrians commemorate the death of their Iranian-born prophet, Zoroaster); and L. Ron Hubbard’s birthday (celebrated by the members of the Church of Scientology in honor of their founder).
Outside of the recognized list, however, the state provides little in the way of guidance on the matter other than to note that students must be in class for 180 days out of the year. The details — including when to close school and how to label their holiday breaks — are largely left to the districts themselves.
In Westfield, for example, schools were closed last year in observance of Rosh Hashanah (September 26-27) and Yom Kippur (October 5), in addition to the usual slew of federal holidays like Labor Day, Presidents’ Day and Thanksgiving. Schools also were closed for the last week in December (dubbed “Holiday Break” on the district’s official calendar) and a “Spring Break” in April that spans a host of its own holidays, including Palm Sunday, Easter, Passover, Theravadin New Year (a Buddhist tradition) and The Last Friday of Lent (celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church), among others.
In other districts throughout the state, conversations about switching up the school calendar have included parents, residents and even students.
In January, for example, members of East Brunswick’s Islamic community spoke out at a board of education meeting to request that Eid al-Fitr and another important Muslim holiday, Eid al-Adha, be celebrated in the township.
“A day off for Eid signifies to non-Muslims that their fellow Muslim classmates are not a fringe group, but rather a part of the fabric of East Brunswick. This fosters diversity and inclusion and helps to curb Islamophobia. A move to incorporate and recognize Muslims on the school calendar promotes diversity, equity and inclusion, which are values held in high esteem in East Brunswick Public Schools,” Nancy Elbasty, an East Brunswick resident with three children in the school district, said at the time.
It worked. Earlier this month, district officials announced that both days (April 10 and June 1) would be added to the list of official holiday closings going forward.
In Paramus, where similar discussions occurred between community members, district officials last year agreed to add Diwali, Lunar New Year, Eid al-Fitr and Juneteenth (a newly-designated federal holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans) to the roster.