By Melissa Schill
In third and fourth grade, my teacher’s aide was Jewish. Every year in April, she would miss school to celebrate Passover. I remember her explaining to the class that per Jewish law, no work is done on the first two days and the last two days of Passover. The time is instead spent in rest and celebration.
Though taking time off from work is an important part of Passover, the vast majority of schools in the United States do not give students nor teachers time off. They are instead forced to choose between observing their religious holiday or attending school.
This problem is the same for other religions and their religious celebration days. Muslims, for example, miss school for Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, among other holidays. Hindus often take off school for Diwali. In New York, schools offer time off for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, but this is a rarity.
However, Christians do not seem to have the same problem as other religions when it comes to taking time off for religious celebrations. Christmas falls conveniently during winter break. School is rarely held on Good Friday; the reason for the day off was vaguely described by my school district as a “board holiday.”
So what should constitute time off? Should certain holidays warrant schools closing? For districts across the country, the concentration of student religion dictates which holidays schools close for. In Prospect Park School District, for example, schools are closed for the first and last days of Ramadan. Because a large percentage of their student body is Muslim, mass absences on these days made the school day a waste. Teachers are forced to spend significant time re-teaching lessons that students are absent for.
In reference to the issue of which religious holidays should constitute school closing, the “separation of school and state” is often brought up. Court cases pop up across the nation concerning whether it is constitutional to offer time off for religious holidays. There has also been controversy about religious holidays in the classroom.
At winter school concerts, Christmas is a blatant feature. I remember dressing up in my red velvet Christmas dress each year in elementary school and singing Christmas carols. The school’s auditorium would be decked out with red and green streamers and sparkling Christmas lights. Young students would shake jingle bells.
Across the nation, school districts have been removing these Christmas features, especially those with explicit religious themes. It is a battle of First Amendment rights. Supporters of Christmas in the classroom argue that removing it is a violation of their freedom of worship rights. Those against Christmas in the classroom use the separation of church and state argument.
Though the battle continues to wage year in and year out, the ultimate decisions continue to be left in the hands of individual school boards.