NJ religious diversity reflected in list of more than 100 school holidays
If you haven't paid close attention to your child's school calendar, you might be surprised to notice more religious holidays than in the past. The state Board of Education's approved list for the 2016-2017 academic year includes more than 100 holidays for which districts must allow excused absences.
The number is significantly higher than a decade ago, when there were about 75 to 80 religious holidays recognized, according to New Jersey School Boards Association deputy executive director Frank Belluscio. The new list reflects the growing diversity of the student population.
Schools are not closed for all of the holidays. But under state law, students receive excused absences if they are not present in school for one of those holidays that their religion recognizes.
"We have seen an increase in the number of school districts that might close for Islamic holidays and that's because of the increasing Islamic population in some of our cities, such as Paterson or Atlantic City," said Belluscio.
There are 180 instructional days required under state law, which Belluscio pointed out gives school boards a great deal of flexibility in establishing their calendars and recognizing the religious needs of their students.
Individual districts have always considered a cross section of the student population when deciding days off, looking at Christian and Jewish holidays, Belluscio said.
"What the school districts will consider is the number of students and the number of staff members who would be out of school on those days. And if it is a significant number, they may decide to close school," he said.
He doesn't expect too many more religious holidays to be added to the state's list in the future.
"The school districts have been able to accommodate this, recognize the beliefs of their students and their staff members, and still meet the minimal state requirements for instructional time," he said.
With local school boards having complete discretion over the school calendar, Belluscio noted that they can remain open on state and federal holidays, or any religious holiday, and decide when to close.
"Occasionally there will be discussion at the local school board level, and sometimes disagreement, but by and large, it's really not an issue," he said.
Districts usually finalize school calendars recommended by the superintendent in late spring.
Contact reporter Dianne DeOliveira at Dianne.DeOliveira@townsquaremedia.com.
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