Why Schools Shouldn't Close for Religious Holidays [Opinion]

Some years back — actually more than I care to remember — the New York City public schools were open on Passover because it did not coincide with Easter that year. There was an outcry from the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) on behalf of Jewish members.

At the time, I was a classroom teacher, and I wrote to the UFT’s newsletter, the New York Teacher, to suggest that in such a melting pot as New York City, public schools should not be closed for any religious holidays. Not for Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur; not for Easter, nor even Christmas.

Shortly after my letter appeared in print, I began receiving threats in the mail. You know the kind — where words have been carefully cut out from magazines and reordered to suggest what the author would like to do to me because of my irreligious ideology. I mentioned this to my father who acknowledged that he was also receiving such threats by mail. His was the other Nadelstern listing in New York City.

The Instruction Our Students Need

Last month, New York City public schools were closed for four days in celebration of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Eid al-Adha, a Muslim observance recognized for the first time this academic year. With this string of closings, I am reminded of the episode from many years before.

If we eliminated the week NYC closes its schools for Christmas, the additional week for Easter and Passover, the three days for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur collectively, the day for Eid al-Adha (without even counting the closure during the summer school months for Eid al-Fitr), our students would have three additional weeks of desperately needed instruction. Contrasting the persistent struggles of many NYC district public schools and their academic calendar of 180 days with the longer school day and year of successful public charter networks like Democracy Prep or Success Academy (which are free from such contractual restrictions), my longstanding position for more instructional time is further confirmed.

Individual students and teachers, of course, should be able to take the day off for their own religious celebrations without penalty, but the schools should remain open. And just as many teachers do when they anticipate an absence, lessons can be planned and shared in advance with substitutes who cover these classes.

My views on the matter of closing public institutions for religious holidays remains unchanged. If anything, I am even more adamant today about why our children need additional days of school, not fewer. Teachers reading this will most certainly acknowledge that the religious school closings in September have all but destroyed any reasonable flow of instruction for the start of the school year.

The Forward and the Mayor Got It Wrong

What tempts me to write on this subject once again is a piece published online in The Jewish Daily Forward — or The Forward as it is more commonly known — that had asked readers to support school closing for the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha as a means of preserving school closings for Jewish holidays.

When the decision to close for the Jewish high holidays was first made in 1960, one-third of the teaching staff and many of the city’s students were Jewish. Today, however, these numbers have decreased dramatically, and yet, The Forward’s Sigal Samuel still calls for school closings for everyone’s religious holidays. She is wrong, just as NYC Mayor De Blasio was wrong when he approved additional religious observance school holidays. In a secular society such as ours, national holidays should be observed, not religious ones.

I suspect that I will once again receive threats in the mail — or, more likely today, screeds posted online. My father has since passed, but my mother, who shares the same last name, will likely receive some as well. Still, I feel more strongly than ever that we can’t afford to squander days of instruction for parochial interests.