Philadelphia School District Reduces Rosh Hashanah Observance for 2018-’19

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When the High Holidays come around in 2018, Jewish students and teachers in the School District of Philadelphia will have one fewer day off to observe the holiday.

Other changes to the 2018-’19 academic calendar — which was approved by the School Reform Commission in December 2016 — echo the changes to the 2017-’18 year, with the school year starting a little earlier than usual. In 2018, school begins for students and staff before Labor Day in late August and ends the first week of June.

While Rosh Hashanah falls Sept. 10 and 11 in 2018, the academic calendar allots only Sept. 10 as a day to observe the holiday. Schools and administrative offices will be closed Sept. 19, 2018, for Yom Kippur. Schools and offices will be closed for both days of Rosh Hashanah in 2017.

“The goal of this process was to create the best academic calendar for our students, parents, teachers and workforce. We know changes to a school calendar, which had remained the same for years, is a culture shift,” said ​Cheryl Logan, chief of academic support for the School District of Philadelphia, in a release from December.

“That’s why the district discussed this with stakeholders for months,” she continued, “including parents, religious groups, SEPTA, the City of Philadelphia and staff throughout the school district to provide transparency and input.”

While the release does not specifically mention changes to observing Rosh Hashanah, it goes on to say, “The SRC vote followed a 10-day public comment period. … A few changes were made to the original proposed 2018-2019 calendar based on feedback received.”

Those changes include adding an additional day to spring break, the release said.

These changes also come after the announcement in 2016 that the school district would add days in observance of two Muslim holidays. However, with the way the 2018 calendar is structured, school begins after one holiday, Eid al-Adha, ends in August, and school ends before the second holiday, Eid al-Fitr, begins in June.

A member of the SRC could not be reached for comment.

District spokesperson Lee Whack wrote in an email, “Our process for making changes to the academic calendar incorporated input from stakeholders across various groups, including faith communities.”

Apart from the shift in High Holiday observance, there are other calendar concerns.

For instance, having school start Aug. 27, 2018, is creating concern around the heat in the buildings and student safety.

“We are concerned really with building conditions at the time of the year relative to when they want to start,” said George Jackson, communications director of Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

To his point, on a Friday in early September 2016, schools closed early due to excessive heat.

Logan explained in the press release that the decision to open earlier “means more consistent, uninterrupted weeks of schooling to support good instructional and attendance habits.”

“Many other school districts in … Pennsylvania start school before Labor Day,” she said. “We also have a few district schools and the vast majority of city charter schools that start school before Labor Day. The decision to start school in late August will give students more instructional time earlier in the year.”

Some teachers, while concerned about the logistical impact of one fewer day for Rosh Hashanah, would agree with Logan’s statement.

Emilie Frechie, dean of students and an English teacher at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, lives in the Lower Merion School District, which has a large Jewish population.

For her, not having the second day for Rosh Hashanah in Philadelphia presents a logistical issue as her children, who go to school in Lower Merion, and husband, who teaches in that district, will presumably have off both days for the holiday. They usually travel out of state to celebrate with family.

“But if I take away my own selfish reasons for wanting to have the dates off, the goal of any school calendar is to enhance the opportunity for instructional time and to limit interruptions to instruction,” she said.

This change indicates to her a changing demographic.

Jackson noted he wasn’t sure how many Jewish teachers there are in Philadelphia, and Frechie said that population is lower than perhaps when the two-day observance began.

“There are fewer and fewer Jewish people teaching in Philadelphia School District now than I would say there was maybe 40 or 50 years ago,” she said, noting she only works with a handful of Jewish teachers. “And also of course the Jewish population of students has plummeted as well.”

Additionally, as everyone celebrates the holidays in their own way, the school district’s absence policy for a religious holiday — in which “a letter from leader of religious congregation stating employee absence is required in observation of named specific holiday or observance” — could also have an effect on whether Jewish staff take off for the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

As Frechie doesn’t attend synagogue but rather celebrates with her family in their own way, she wouldn’t be able to provide that documentation.

“As a teacher I’m always thinking about the greater good, not just what’s good just for one. So while I have my own personal desires of when I get off for my own holidays, I know that’s not necessarily serving the needs of the students,” she said, “and the goal is for them to be in classes as often as possible.”

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