Baltimore County Schools to Remain Closed on High Holidays

School advocates packed the Baltimore County school board’s meeting in Towson on Tuesday. (Photo by Justin Silberman)

The Baltimore County school board voted Tuesday to keep schools closed during the Jewish High Holidays in 2018, continuing a more than two-decade practice.

Community members were split after the board had considered keeping schools open on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but many underscored the importance of observing the holidays.

The board’s 9-3 decision came after last year’s passage of a state mandate set by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan that requires school to start after Labor Day and end by June 15. The school board felt the squeeze of the requirement, which was created to extend summers for families, spark tourism and economic opportunities and keep children out of hot classrooms that lack air conditioning.

An advisory committee proposed two calendar options for the 2018-19 school year, endorsing the one that kept schools open on the High Holidays. But after nearly an hour of deliberations Tuesday, school board members selected the calendar that abbreviates spring break in order to accommodate the High Holidays. School will be closed the Friday before Easter through Easter Monday rather than schools closing the Thursday prior to Easter as they have in the past.

Baltimore Jewish Council executive director Howard Libit, who supported keeping schools closed on the High Holidays, said he was pleased with the outcome.

“The calendar is tight,” said Libit, whose two children attend county schools. “I don’t envy the complicated decision [the school board] faced. But there is a viable option that demonstrates that we’re able to protect the safety and welfare and finances of the schools. … I’m glad the majority of the board came around and made the right decision.”

Complicating matters for the school board was that state law requires schools to be open for at least 180 days in one school year. But because schools days in Baltimore County are shorter than other districts, they must open for 182 or 183 days to meet the requirement.

School officials also needed to make space for days off in the 2018-19 calendar year that were not required this academic year.

In 2017, Yom Kippur fell on Saturday, so schools didn’t need to shut down. And schools will have to close on Nov. 6, 2018, for the general election. Lastly, because schools need to close by June 15, which is a Saturday, it gave the school board one less day in its calendar.

Rosh Hashanah next year begins at sundown on Sunday, Sept. 9. Yom Kippur begins at sundown on Tuesday, Sept. 18.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, County Councilwoman Vicki Almond (D-District 2), state Del. Shelly Hettleman (D-District 11) and state Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-District 11) publicly opposed opening schools on those days.

School board member David Uhlfelder, one of the nine who voted in favor of keeping schools closed, said it made no sense to open for financial or operational reasons. He predicted the school system would have had to pay $300,000 to $500,000 to cover the cost of substitute teachers to fill in for the Jewish teachers who took off.

“It’s not a religious issue,” Uhlfelder said. “It’s a question of economics. It’s really quite simple.”

Josie Shaffer, the student representative on the board, also voted to keep schools closed. She said her decision was motivated in part by safety concerns.

“I live near Beth El Congregation, and on the first and second day of [Rosh Hashanah], there are cars everywhere. It’s a madhouse,” said Shaffer, who is a senior at Pikesville High School. “I don’t want to see buses that are filled with elementary school children at 8 a.m. or 8:30 a.m. when everyone is in shul, which would be disruptive and unsafe.”

School board member Stephen Verch, who was one the three descending votes, disagreed. He said closing schools for the High Holidays would hurt many students from low-income families who are dependent on the free meals schools provide and can’t afford private childcare services.

“When schools are open, those children who go, they will be getting fed,” Verch said. “Their parents won’t have to find alternate means for daycare or pay out of their own pocket for the concern of the safety of their children when our schools are locked.”

An amendment by school board member Kathleen Causey was also adopted to shift one professional development day to Wednesday, June 5, 2019, which is when the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr falls.

Dr. Bash Pharoan, a Baltimore County surgeon, has been lobbying the school board to recognize Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha for the last two decades. He felt the move represented a step in the right direction but that more work needed to be done.

“I’ve heard hundreds of times from you, board members, equity, equality, diversity and inclusion,” Pharoan told the board before Causey proposed her amendment. “It’s about time to make the words into action. It’s really hard to get Muslims to come out and speak up.”

The Supreme Court has ruled that schools can’t close for religious reasons, but they can shut down if opening would cause operations to be disrupted because of high absenteeism among students and teachers.

The scheduling conflicts have led other Maryland school districts to consider opening on the High Holidays.

The Anne Arundel County school board last month approved a school calendar that has schools open on Rosh Hashanah but closed on Yom Kippur.

In December, Harford County school leaders will vote whether or not to close for the High Holidays.

In Howard County, two calendars were proposed that would continue the practice of closing on the two Jewish holidays. Carroll County Public Schools will also close for both holidays.

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