How does a school decide what holiday students should take off? Under state law, public schools across Massachusetts must have days off for statewide legal holidays like Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Memorial Day. But what about religious and cultural holidays?
Wellesley’s academic calendar for the 2022-2023 school year, along with those of other nearby towns like Natick and Needham, already includes days off for the Jewish holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which was decided over eleven years ago. However, nearby towns such as Brookline and Hopkinton, have added Lunar New Year as a no-school holiday. Recently, Hopkinton has also added Diwali and Eid-al-Fitr to the list.
When deciding which religious and cultural holidays—with the exception of those required by the state such as Christmas and Good Friday—should be no-school holidays, it is up to the local school district. For Wellesley, every year around December, superintendent Dr. David Lussier presents the recommended academic calendar for the next school year to the School Committee, who will then vote to approve it. But what goes on behind that process? If people wanted to add a no-school holiday, how would they do it? Are these changes even likely to happen?
To help answer these questions, Linda Chow, Vice Chair and five-year member of the School Committee, gives some insight into the Committee’s current agenda.
According to Chow, when it comes to deciding no-school holidays, Wellesley tends to follow the state. To understand what other districts are doing, the School Committee has the opportunity to attend a conference held by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) every fall in November.
“It’s a great opportunity to meet with our peers in other towns,” said Chow. “We certainly want to learn from one another.”
Aware of Hopkinton’s recent decisions to add Diwali, Eid-al-Fitr, and Lunar New Year as no-school holidays, Chow said that she would look more into how the decision was made.
Within Wellesley’s own school system, however, a critical change is currently in the process of taking place. A few years ago, before the pandemic, the School Committee developed a new Strategic Plan, or a new framework of strategic initiatives to improve student education and development within the district. This new Strategic Plan will likely be published next February, and introduce a revised set of goals for Wellesley Public Schools (WPS).
“One of these key goals is diversity, equity and inclusion,” said Chow. “Within that context, that’s where recognizing a cultural holiday might come in.”
Chow described that the overarching idea of the Strategic Plans—both the previous one from 2013 to 2019 and the new one soon to be published—is to focus on every student based on their specific needs. Adding on to that priority, the new Strategic Plan highlights student agency, instilling in students the sense that they can advocate for themselves as individuals. A picture titled “Profile of A Graduate” from the WPS Strategic Plan web page illustrates this emphasis on individualization for students.
“In many ways, I definitely encourage others who are interested in advocating for any additional school holidays. That would be a great illustration of this idea of student agency,” Chow said.
Assistant Principal Collin Shattuck agrees on the importance of student voice—not just for adding a holiday to the calendar, but also for helping students strike a balance between academics and personal identity.
“I would encourage every single student to advocate for themselves,” said Shattuck. “I know that that’s a pressure in and of itself, but if [students] feel like they’re not being supported by this community, that’s something we want to address.”
So what are some ways that students and families can exercise their agency and advocate for a no-school holiday to be added to the calendar? Fortunately, there are many present and upcoming opportunities.
“Certainly, having a group of students bring it forward and making a proposal is one way to bring it to the School Committee and superintendent’s attention,” said Chow. “If Lunar New Year, for instance, is something that you think there is a lot of interest in seeing on the school calendar, from the standpoint of diversity, equity, and inclusion, I could see some students and families in town making a strong case for it.”
If that does happen, the School Committee has to assess if there is enough interest in the community to make adding a holiday to the calendar a high-enough priority. If so, the process would start with the committee discussing the matter during their meetings. Afterwards, if majority of the committee votes in approval, the holiday would then be added to the calendar. To ensure the state-required 180 school day requirement, the School Committee would then extend the school year to end one day later. As always, the first day of school would still be the Wednesday before Labor Day.
Through the new Strategic Plan, parents, staff, and students—especially high school students—will have the chance to attend focus group discussions hosted by WPS as early as this October. These focus group discussions will be limited to twenty participants selected to represent and diversify perspectives.
“I do think this is an opportunity for students to speak up for [recognition of a holiday],” said Shattuck. “If it means something to them and it’s important that the school recognizes that and appreciates that, then absolutely, [the focus group discussions] is a fine place to use that voice,”
For now, students who observe a religious or cultural holiday that has not been acknowledged in the school calendar are certainly allowed to excuse themselves from school and homework, as long as they let their teachers know.
Though the holiday policy in the WHS Student Handbook currently only considers religious holidays, Shattuck clarified that it can also apply to cultural holidays.
“[The policy] is not designed strictly for the holidays that we recognize in our school calendar because there are certainly holidays that many students in our school celebrate that we don’t recognize formally, but still need to be considerate of,” said Shattuck. “Religious or cultural, those experiences are part of the student’s identity. As soon as we start holding certain academic expectations that limit them from being able to fulfill that part of their identity, that can be problematic.”
So in light of the renewed focus on individual student agency within the school system and the School Committee revisiting the delayed roll-out of the Strategic Plan, those who wish to see a particular religious or cultural holiday reflected in the calendar are encouraged to express their opinions to the district and act upon them, for the moment has arrived.
“Timing wise, it seems we have a unique opportunity,” Chow said.