Despite objections from parents, staff, and religious leaders, the Piscataway Board of Education voted six-three to hold classes on Rosh Hashana this fall.
The June 6 action was “disappointing” to those who had hoped to persuade the board to revise its schedule, which for many years has included a day off for the first day of Rosh Hashana.
The holiday falls this year on Thursday-Friday, Sept. 5-6, the week following Labor Day and beginning one day after the scheduled start of the school year.
Staff and parents were told that closing schools Sept. 5 would disrupt the flow of the school year.
“I was disappointed,” said board member Ira Stern. At the meeting he proposed a calendar revision that would have moved the school opening one day earlier to Tuesday, with the first two hours designated as a professional development day for teachers, and the students arriving later.
Stern was told that such a move would have caused problems for working parents and those who had already planned long Labor Day weekend vacations.
Stern said he thought the change would not have caused “much of a disruption, and obviously two members agreed with me, but the superintendent and six others didn’t.”
The board’s decision, Stern said, was “demoralizing to the staff.” Those who want to take off for the holiday must use up to two of three allotted personal days in the first week of school.
Stern said he had been caught off-guard by the omission of a school closing for Rosh Hashana, saying such changes are usually highlighted when the calendar is given to board members.
He was also concerned about the additional expense in paying for substitutes for Jewish teachers who will choose not to work on the holiday.
Laura Leibowitz, a special education teacher at Piscataway High School, said the decision was “incredibly disappointing.”
Interim schools superintendent Teresa M. Rafferty told NJJN that a number of considerations went into the board’s decision. She stressed that the 2013-14 calendar was a one-time solution to the unusually early timing of Rosh Hashana.
“We spent a lot of time and considered many stakeholders,” she said. “We were pretty concerned about the educational continuity, but it doesn’t mean that future calendars won’t include Rosh Hashana.”
Rafferty said as part of her research she looked at the calendars of other districts and found that most were giving the holiday off, and a majority of those were beginning school after Rosh Hashana, on Monday, Sept. 9.
However, she said, in Piscataway’s case, closing for Rosh Hashana would have meant adding a day to the calendar, and would have pushed the high school graduation — scheduled for June 20, 2014 — ahead one day. The graduation is held at the Rutgers Athletic Center and the date cannot be changed.
“We have a strong mandate from this community that they want to continue holding graduation there,” said Rafferty, who also said district diversity was a factor.
“We have many religions when we look at our school population,” she said. “There are Orthodox Christians, Hindus, and Muslims.”
Rafferty noted there are 111 days recognized by the state as religious holidays for which student absence is excused or on which a district may close. In checking this year’s attendance records for the second day of Rosh Hashana, administrators found only two students and 12 teachers were absent for religious reasons.
However, Leibowitz, who lives in Piscataway, estimated that 13 percent of the district’s more than 600-member professional staff is Jewish and would be “directly impacted.” She suggested that between 70 to 80 teachers would take the day off on Sept. 5.