The Montgomery County Board of Education last week voted unanimously to begin the next school year on Aug. 30, rejecting a plan that would have scheduled the opening of school on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Sept. 8.
“I want to call out that we have closed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur since the 1970’s,” said Montgomery Board of Education member Patricia O’Neill. “So to be clear, we’re starting Aug. 30.”
Before the vote, some in the Jewish community were concerned that the school year would begin on the High Holiday, forcing students to choose between religious observance and first-day orientation in school.
The county typically does not hold classes on the first day of Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. Schools are open on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.
Large parts of the Jewish community don’t observe the second day of Rosh Hashanah, according to Rabbi Marc Israel of Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville. So having classes on that day is not controversial among Jewish students and teachers, said Guila Franklin Siegel, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
But the first day of classes is an important one for teachers and staff. Forcing the county’s Jewish employees to choose between their work and religion is unfair, Siegel said.
“Attending the first day of school is important, especially for teachers and other staff in terms of meeting the children, meeting the parents and getting the lay of the land,” Siegel said. “And so [starting on the second day of Rosh Hashanah] would have really been a burden and a stress point for Jewish families and for Jewish staff.”
The same is true for Jewish families who observe two days of the holiday, Israel said.
“It would have put them in an extremely difficult position, to have to make that decision between being at school and being at shul,” Israel said.
Before the vote, the board of education issued an online survey to gauge public opinion on each of the proposed starting dates. It received 7,567 responses from parents, students, distinct employees and community members, according to Montgomery County Public Schools.
Seventy-seven percent of respondents supported starting on Aug. 30, while 22 percent supported starting on Sept. 8 or later.
Both Siegel and Israel praised the board for collecting community feedback.
“I was very pleased that they created a mechanism for community input,” Israel said. “They wanted to really hear from our voices, and I thought that was a great sign.”
The vote came five days after the Fairfax County School Board adopted an academic calendar in which schools will be open on four holidays celebrated by minority religions, including the first day of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Instead, tests and school activities will not be held on 15 religious and cultural days.
“It’s very notable that Montgomery County was able to address this issue and dispatch with it pretty quickly to the satisfaction of constituencies within the school system,” Siegel said last week. “This stuff doesn’t need to be complicated. It’s just unfortunate that it became that way in Fairfax.”