School calendar set: Three holidays, including Rosh Hashanah, turn to school days

Despite lengthy debate about whether Rosh Hashanah should be a school day or a holiday, the Milford Board of Education voted recently to make the Jewish holiday a day of school for students.

The decision was part of a move to change next year’s school calendar in case severe winter weather and tropical storms continue to cancel school days as they did this year, forcing school administrators to cut both February and April vacations at pretty much the last minute.

“Our goal was to capture five days from the calendar for 2013-14 to prevent what happened this year,” said school Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Feser at an earlier board meeting. “This would create some breathing room.”

Feser emphasized that she did not intend to pit one religion against another in proposing that Rosh Hashanah be a day of school. The board also voted to make Columbus Day and Veterans Day school days for students.

“This was in no way a statement on the Jewish faith,” Feser said.

One local parent spoke up at last week’s school board meeting and urged the administration to honor the Jewish religion and to observe Rosh Hashanah as a holiday.

Rabbi Schneur Wilhelm attended, too, and said there had been some talk about the calendar at his synagogue. The rabbi appeared to try to temper his words and not raise dissension, but he did point out that “it would mean a lot” if Rosh Hashanah were to stay a day off from school.

This generated much talk among board members, who discussed the presence of many different faiths in the school system, the difficulty of trying to cater to all faiths, and the idea of making Good Friday a school day to create parity between two different faiths.

Good Friday will remain a day off, however, because it is part of the spring break.

Board member Beverley Pierson said she worried there would be dissension among people of the Jewish faith if Rosh Hashanah became a school day because it is a high holy day.

Laura Fetter said she thought there was room to keep Rosh Hashanah as a holiday off from school by adding a day to the end of the school year.

Earl Whiskeyman noted that a company he worked for made every day a work day and gave its employees two days of their choosing off. He also pointed out that when he was a schoolboy, children went to school on the day after Thanksgiving.

“I think this is a real difficult issue,” said Chairman Tracy Casey, noting that she didn’t think it was a good idea to base the school calendar on religion.

This year’s storms left no breathing room in the school calendar because there were 13 days that had to be made up, thus prompting several months of school board disucssion about how to fix the problem.

At the board’s recommendation, administrators surveyed teachers, staff and parents to find out what kind of calendar changes they would favor.

Based on the survey, Feser recommended leaving the start day for school where it has been, the Wednesday before Labor Day, and turning Rosh Hashanah, Columbus Day and Veterans Day into school days.

February vacation is eliminated, but students will have off from school the Friday before February break typically occurs and then the following Monday, which is Presidents Day, giving them two four-day weeks in a row.

The last day of school is scheduled for June 5 for students and June 6 for teachers, leaving room for snow days if they have to be added to the end of the year.

Dr. Feser said she looked at other options, such as having students go to school on Election Day, but she said that created problems for the registrars of voters.

Feser considered making Martin Luther King Day a school day, but state law does not allow schools to cancel scheduled school vacation days if they occur in December or January.

Administrators also looked at having a March vacation instead of an April vacation, but since most Connecticut school districts have a week off in April, they decided to stick with an April break.

After much discussion, primarily about Rosh Hashanah, the school board voted unanimously in favor of Dr. Feser’s proposed calendar for next school year.