Members of the Howard County Jewish community were out in force at last Thursday’s school board meeting that addressed a possible change in the public school system’s calendar.
The change, concerning whether schools should remain open on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, presented two options. One maintains the current calendar, which closes schools on the High Holidays. The other opens schools on all days except for state-mandated holidays as a way to be “equitable” to all.
Christine O’Connor, who chairs the Howard County Board of Education, began the meeting, which had more than 100 attendees, saying the board had received an estimated 500 emails concerning the topic.
The first to testify were those who the change would affect most directly: students.
Leanna Feinleib, a senior at Howard High School, said the proposal is “forcing us to choose between our education and our religion. … I don’t even understand why it’s even being considered.”
“The school system has presented no current [data] on the operational impact of keeping schools open on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur from the perspective of Jewish students and teachers,” said Jamie Kotler, a student at Atholton High School.
The numbers were the focus for many of those who spoke at the meeting. Many members of the community reminded the board that closing school on the High Holidays was due to a 1979 survey that concluded the absentee rate on those days — 12 percent in 1979 — would make it operationally impractical to open schools.
“Lacking current data, the report [from the board of education] states ‘the only way to obtain absence data on those days would be to open school,’” said Beth Shalom Rabbi Susan Grossman, president of the Howard County Board of Rabbis, during her testimony. “It does not seem very responsible to open school without knowing beforehand if there will be sufficient staff and [substitute teachers] available to ensure a safe and sound educational environment.”
Jeremy Goldman, an Ellicott City resident, is a parent of two children who testified at the meeting. He is in favor of the first option.
“My son, who is in fourth grade, asked me the same [question],” said Goldman when asked what prompted the board to consider this change. “I don’t have an answer. The [board’s] report says ‘recognizing the changing demographic in Howard County’ [but] no one knows what that means.”
Michelle Ostroff, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Howard County, submitted several statistics to demonstrate the Jewish community has grown significantly since the 1979 survey. The statistics were taken from the 2010 Jewish community study of Howard County. It said in 2010, there were 17,500 Jews in the county; an 8 percent increase since 1999. It also said there were 7,500 Jewish households; a 15 percent increase since 1999.
“In order to make a data-driven decision, more work must be done. That work should include a survey of various cultural and religious communities regarding absences on all of our most important days,” Ostroff told the board. “The Jewish Federation is fully committed to assisting in collecting data and partnering with other faith and cultural organizations as well as the Howard County [Education] Association and the Howard County Administrators Association to report what’s needed to make an informed decision.”
Not all testimony supported keeping schools closed during the High Holidays. Indian-American resident Dipak Srinivasan said he supports keeping the schools open, because “I think it’s the only responsible thing to do.” Srinivasan explained he, and his wife, are forced to take off of work on those days to watch their children. His children also must miss school on Indian holidays.
“We’ve gone along with this discriminatory practice for that long,” Srinivasan said, referring to 1979.
Several people at the meeting spoke about the Lunar New Year, celebrated by the Chinese community. They requested the board move to professional development days to coincide with the Lunar New Year and believe supporting the board’s first option would lead to this change.
The board also heard from one member of the community who is no stranger to the inner workings of the school system.
“I think the underlying issue behind the committee’s premature recommendation [is] the desire to treat all faith groups equally and to honor and respect the diversity of belief and culture that makes Howard County such an amazing place to live,” said Joshua Kaufman, former member and chairman of the Howard County Board of Education. “The committee’s instinct is wonderful and I fully support it.
“However, making a change that will negatively impact the operations of the school system,” Kaufman continued, “While making students and staff across the county feel less valued and included is the totally wrong way to do that.”