Baltimore County Urged to Close Schools on High Holidays at Hearing

The Baltimore County school system’s Greenwood Campus at 6901 Charles St. in Towson. (Photo by David Stuck)

The Baltimore County school board heard passionate testimony on Tuesday in Towson over whether schools should open on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur next year.

The school board calendar committee is recommending the move, which is also under consideration by other schools systems around the state. A vote is expected to take place during the school board’s next meeting on Oct. 24.

In Baltimore County, which has the state’s third largest public school system, two calendar options are on the table for the 2018-19 academic year. One would continue to close schools for the High Holidays, and the other would open schools on the two holidays.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, State Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-District 11) and County Councilwoman Vicki Almond (D-District 2) are among the politicians who support keeping schools closed for the holidays.

Sharon Saroff, a special education consultant who is Jewish, told the board that having the two holidays off allows families like hers to carry on their traditions without any added burden or stress.

“I can tell you, the importance of these holidays requires that we take them off,” she said. “We need them. What I am concerned about is how we are working with the calendar.”

The meeting came as school officials around the state confront what will be the second year of a gubernatorial mandate that requires the school year to begin after Labor Day and end by June 15. The schedule, ordered by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, was made to extend summers for families, spark tourism and economic opportunities and keep children out of hot classrooms that lack air conditioning.

But Baltimore County has felt the squeeze, leaving schools officials few options to maneuver the fallout.

Though state law requires a 180-day school year, Baltimore County has a shorter school day than other districts and must open for 182 or 183 days to meet the requirement. The law provides students time off on 15 other days, including seven from Christmas Eve through New Year’s Day and two for Good Friday and Easter Monday. Five days for inclement weather are also set aside.

Jayne Lee, vice president for leadership of the Baltimore County PTA Council, suggested the school board meet with her council to weigh all its options before making a final decision. Opening on the High Holidays, she said, would be short-sighted and unfair to students and faculty.

“I would ask that the PTA Council have a meeting with the board, because we are the parents and advocacy group of record of the county,” Lee said.

In 1995-96, Baltimore County began closing schools the first day of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when they fell on school days, citing a high level of student and staff absences.

The U.S. Constitution bars public schools from closing for religious reasons, but they can shut down on religious holidays if opening would cause operations to be disrupted because of high absenteeism among students and teachers.

Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, told the JT ahead of the hearing that it is in the county’s best interest to have schools remain closed on the High Holidays. Even if schools open on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Libit said he feels those days would be a missed opportunity for students to learn.

“I think we should avoid picking the option that avoids creating chaos next year,” said Libit, whose two children attend county public schools. “People are still going to observe the holidays regardless.”

The school system does not collect data on the religious affiliations of its students or staff, so it is difficult to predict what impact a closure might have.

But Baltimore County schools paraeducator Lila Merenbloom estimated that opening might cost more than $1 million to provide substitute teachers to replace those who would take the days off. County officials have projected 700 to 1,200 substitutes would have to be provided for school staff employees who observe the holidays.

“There are some days that keeping schools open isn’t worth the added expense since there’s no real learning going on,” Merenbloom said. “Will our students benefit from this expenditure? Will our students be getting quality instruction or midday babysitting with the opportunity to be a part of an anonymous misbehaving group?”

Other testimony showcased concerns regarding other religious holidays.

Dr. Bash Pharoan asserted there is no reliable data available to support closing for Jewish religious days, and it is therefore discriminatory to exclude Muslim holy days.

Pharoan wants the school system to close for the two most important Islamic holidays, Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr, when they coincide with school days. He has been lobbying for the change for a decade.

“It’s about equality,” said Pharoan, whose adult children attended county schools. “How about discipline from the board of education in granting non-formal religious holiday closures based on secular, objective, verifiable reasons and not political reasons?”

Muhammad Jameel, past president of the Islamic Society of Baltimore, said the decision to close schools on religious holidays shouldn’t be a religious contest. He said careful thought is needed to ensure such decisions don’t breed resentment among faith groups.

“We only want inclusion and justice,” Jameel said. “We must eliminate this division and separation if we really want to unite. Why don’t we have holidays for both [Muslims and Jews]? Why only one?”

Other school systems have faced similar challenges as they continue to finalize their academic calendars.

In Anne Arundel County, schools are also considering staying open for the Jewish High Holidays. A calendar committee is expected to submit a recommendation to the school board on Wednesday.

In Howard County, two calendar proposals have been proposed that would continue the practice of closing on the two Jewish holidays.

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