Board of Education to consider keeping schools open during Jewish holidays

By Morgan Schmidt
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer

The Baltimore County Board of Education is set to consider the pros and cons of keeping schools open during the key Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, beginning in the new school year.

John Mayo, BCPS chief human resources officer, told board members Tuesday that the academic year of 1994-1995 was the last time schools were open during Jewish holidays.

Rosh Hashana marks the first day of the New Year for the Jewish community. Yom Kippur, also known as the “Day of Atonement,” is considered to be the holiest day and is traditionally observed with fasting and intensive prayer.

“Approximately 18 percent of BCPS staff members identify as Jewish,” Mayo said.

If schools were open during the Jewish holidays, and if the 18 percent requested time off, Mayo said about 700 to 1,200 substitutes would have to be hired to cover school classes in their absence.

“We have not yet talked in dollar terms,” Mayo said. “But it will have a fiscal impact. It is a price tag we cannot ignore.”

Students are protected by federal and state laws if they miss school on religious holidays, which typically include Good Friday, Passover and the two Jewish holidays. Recently, however, efforts have been made to expand the list of religious holidays to include Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, which honors the Prophet Abraham. Schools vary in their response to the holidays if they don’t close with some prohibiting tests while others cancelling sports and other activities.

Another consideration for Baltimore County would be the impact on children if schools are kept open. Mayo said some students would be taken out of school to participate in special Jewish synagogue services and to spend time with their families. He added that during this time, the absent children could possibly miss important coursework.

According to the board, school calendar development is driven by a mandated number of hours. Keeping Baltimore County schools open on Jewish holy days on Sept. 10 and 19 would add 10 balance hours. With the current schedule, there are nearly four.

Superintendent Verletta White said the board would reconvene to discuss the issue Oct. 10. She said a public hearing would be held at that time.

On another issue, the board reviewed a study that measures student achievement, especially now that county schools are rapidly becoming more diverse racially and economically. The Johns Hopkins study found that despite the challenges of declining kindergarten readiness and above average poverty rates, there are consistent gains in reading and mathematics, as measured by Measures of Academic Progress.

Furthermore, college-going rates have remained steady at 61 percent and there is an increase in students who are choosing career paths in technology, the study found.

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