Farmington Board of Education scraps Jewish holidays, rejects Diwali despite public support – Hartford Courant | Team Cansler

Farmington — The Farmington Board of Education voted unanimously on Monday to remove two Jewish holidays from its 2023-24 calendar, rejecting calls from the city’s South Asian residents to set aside a day off for the Diwali festival — a discussion that the ever-changing culture signals community composition.

Under the decision, Farmington Public Schools will continue to observe Indigenous Peoples Day/Italian American Heritage Day (formerly Columbus Day) and Good Friday, but will no longer be given a day off for Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah.

The much-anticipated but scrapped proposal to make Diwali a district-wide holiday drew strong support from Farmington’s growing network of South Asian families, who say now is the time to introduce the holiday. In the 2021-22 school year, 23.5% of Farmington students identified as Asian, a population that has grown nearly 75% over the past 10 years.

During a public statement, 30 speakers, students, parents and community leaders called for a holiday for Diwali, the festival of lights celebrated by more than a billion Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh devotees worldwide.

Ruupala Kalaiarasu, a senior at Farmington High School and co-president of the school’s Indian Student Union, said academic commitments have forced students to push aside many smaller vacations within Indian tradition. The widely celebrated Diwali is a holiday they wish to observe undisturbed.

“Diwali, a holiday celebrating the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness, is celebrated across India and many other South Asian countries,” Kalaiarasu said. “Regardless of your religious or cultural background, everyone is free to celebrate this holiday. … It is celebrated so strongly and universally in our Farmington community.”

Navin Bhavani Mahesh, a Farmington High School student and first-generation immigrant, said a Diwali holiday would make him and others feel that their culture is being recognized.

“Moving and adapting to the American lifestyle while being exposed to predominantly Western culture at an early age has quite frankly disengaged me from my roots and isolated my identity as a South Asian,” said Bhavani Mahesh. “Feeling seen and accepting your own identity is one of the most important steps on the path to self-development.”

Farmington Public Schools do not collect information about students’ religious backgrounds. The board decided to eliminate Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah because the holidays would not cause excessive staff or student absenteeism, lengthen days to the end of the school year, and potentially create a problem of justice among other religious groups.

The decision-making process for Diwali followed the same framework.

Farmington Superintendent Kathleen Greider said that by voting for a Diwali day, the board might have to consider other requests for days off for Epiphany and Muslim holidays.

“If we said yes, it would potentially have a fairness issue where more groups would come forward — that would potentially further lengthen the school year,” Grieder said.

She added that the district’s analysis found that Diwali had no significant impact on school attendance.

“Many of our students have pointed out that they also come to school with a high level of commitment on these public holidays,” said Grieder.

But South Asian students said current guidelines leave them feeling they have no choice but to attend classes and skip their cherished family traditions.

“Last October, I came home from practice and the sun was already down, my house was already decorated, and my sister and I were simply told to eat what my mother had previously cooked,” Nitya Terala said , a student at Farmington High School, said. “Diwali is meant to be celebrated with loved ones all day long. … Not being able to celebrate fully made me feel like I was drifting further from my culture.”

Shanay Dave, also a junior at Farmington High School, echoed the academic concerns of his peers.

“Students celebrating Diwali cannot afford to take the day off and cannot celebrate this religious holiday,” Dave said.

Kimberly Wynne, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, said the district is sending out reminders and educational links about upcoming holidays that their students might celebrate. In addition, students who choose to take the day off will receive an excused absence.

“Monthly we send reminders to teachers asking them to pay attention to projects, tests and homework on those specific days and dates that students may be spending time with their families,” Wynne said. “We don’t want them to have to make a difficult choice between academic expectations and an important family vacation.”

The Farmington Board of Education will reopen discussions about the 2023 school holidays before approving the 2024-25 calendar, but there is no prospect of future changes.

Policy Committee Chairman Bill Beckert and other board members advocated bringing the fall school days forward and eliminating disruptions to the early school year schedule.

“[We have] to ensure that instructional integrity is maintained as best, efficiently and consistently as possible given the limitations of the calendar,” said Beckert.

“Ultimately, we should strive to finish our school year as early as possible because we know there will be significant leakage in June. Include more holidays in our calendar and thus dismiss them [the last day] exposes us to these really late ends.”

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