Before winter break hit for the St. Paul Public Schools, Heather Kilgore got a heads-up that the school district calendar for the 2021-22 school year might have an early issue for Jewish students and staff members: The first day of school was also the first day of Rosh Hashanah.
“Our process is that we do three ‘skeleton calendars’ at a time, and (2021-22) was the third year,” said Kilgore, who added that she doesn’t remember if Rosh Hashanah was discussed in the initial discussion several years ago.
Rosh Hashanah start dates have always been a moving target on the secular calendar. Usually starting in mid-September, but it’s started anywhere from Sept. 5 (in 2013) to Oct. 3 (in 2016). When the 2021 date of sundown on Sept. 6, the first thought for many was: “That seems early.” The second thought was: “That’s Labor Day!”
Not only is it Labor Day, but Tuesday, Sept. 7 — the first full day of the holiday and the only day the Reform congregations observe — is also the traditional start day for schools in Minnesota. In order to make sure students and staff don’t have to decide between faith and the first day of school, many are starting either Sept. 8, 9, or before Labor Day.
Kilgore, the SPPS director of family engagement and community partnerships also sits on the district calendar committee, which had its proposal to push the start day back to Sept. 9 approved by the St. Paul Board of Education approved at a special meeting last night, March 1.
“It was exceedingly easy. And I say that as a bureaucrat,” Kilgore said. “Things don’t happen fast. But our principals and superintendent and other executive leaders heard about it too, and it was automatic: let’s get the calendar committee together and prepare a draft recommendation.”
The rare conflict between the first day of school and one of the holiest days of the year for the Jewish community is one that school districts throughout the metro area have been facing. Some, like the Robbinsdale Area School District, were given several years’ notice of this conflict by families and planned ahead for the switch by approving a Sept. 8 start. Many others are adjusting on the fly; the Eden Prairie School Board approved amending its calendar to start on Sept. 8 at its meeting last week, in part due to pressure from students and parents. The Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School Board is going to consider changing its start date to Sept. 8 at its March 11 meeting.
Roughly half of the school districts in the Twin Cities metro area are accommodating families and staff with a start date of Sept. 8 or 9. Edina and Hopkins are having their customary pre-Labor Day starts, and families will keep their kids home from school as in past years, per their individual observances.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas and the Minnesota Rabbinical Association had done a lot of advocacy work on behalf of the community, and education work for school districts about the importance of changing the start date.
“The decisions of the various school districts recognize the importance of Rosh Hashanah as well as the reality that — hopefully — this will be the first somewhat normal school day in a post-pandemic academic world,” said Steve Hunegs, the executive director of the JCRC said. “The school districts appreciate that, and appreciate the importance of all students beginning on an equal footing in this very important day of school.”
The JCRC has created a webpage to track districts that have approved a change to accommodate Rosh Hashanah.
Two Days Or One?
While St. Paul will be starting the school year on Sept. 9, the reason wasn’t completely for Rosh Hashanah reasons. Kilgore said that under the calendar principles the district uses, they try to avoid one-day school weeks and that the district’s pre-k and kindergarten students start two days after the 1st-12th graders. To start on Sept. 8 would mean violating both of those principles with a Friday, Sept. 10, start.
“We have the room” in the calendar, Kilgore said. “The feedback from stakeholders varied on the recommendation. Some said one day was fine; others said two days was really important. Two (days) made the most sense for us from an academic and programmatic standpoint.”
According to a letter that was sent to school district leaders, the MRA said: “We hope you will consider a start date that does not require Jewish students and faculty to miss the first day of school in order to observe Rosh Hashanah.”
MRA Co-President Rabbi Jill Crimmings of Bet Shalom said that goal was to advocate from a place of educating the broader community about the wide-range of observance in the Jewish community and advocate for all avenues of observance.
“We wanted to lift up that Jewish communities look different in different locations,” she said. “That one letter that went to Minneapolis and St. Louis Park also went to St. Cloud and Duluth and outer ring suburbs where we know the makeup is different.
“We talked about how there are different levels of advocacy, and when engaging in more one-on-one conversations, you can be stronger and make decisions based on the district. St. Louis Park may get a different conversation than Eden Prairie, based on the makeup of the districts.”
Beth El Synagogue’s Avi Olitzky said that, although grateful for the accommodations that school districts provided to students and staff that observe the holidays, his preference would have been to have both days.
“I think that when schools close for one day of Rosh Hashanah as opposed to two days, though there is a large swath of the Jewish community that observes one day, it’s a gesture that ends up bifurcating the community as opposed to bringing it together,” he said.
Said Hunegs: “What has been heartening has the desire to accommodate the needs of Jewish students and parents in conjunction with the first day of school and Rosh Hashanah. A couple of times they needed a little more explanation or more discussion, which is fair and reasonable. The results speak for themselves.”
No Luck At The U
One school where advocacy had no effect was the University of Minnesota system, where the traditional day after Labor Day start will go on. In a statement, U Provost Rachel Croson said that accommodations are offered that allow all students “to practice their faith without negatively affecting their education.”
“We are disappointed that, despite giving a 3-year warning, the U was unable to shift their start date,” Minnesota Hillel Executive Director Benjie Kaplan said. “Hillel will do everything we can to ensure students have access to meaningful holiday experiences no matter how they choose to start their year on campus.”
Minnesota is the only Big Ten school that is conflicting with Rosh Hashanah. All other schools start before Labor Day, except for Wisconsin and Northwestern.
According to Croson’s statement, the “University’s policy on academic calendars states that calendars must be officially established at least four years in advance, with planning for calendar review and approval beginning the year before,” Croson’s statement said. “In light of the recent concerns, the Senate Committee on Educational Policy, which approves all academic calendars, recently revisited the Fall 2021 calendar. Due to the constraints around the calendar this fall — the requirement of starting classes after the Minnesota State Fair, the need to meet instructional day requirements for accreditation, the need to hold six days of final examinations — it was not possible to set an alternative calendar that would move the first day of classes outside of Rosh Hashanah and also satisfy all academic requirements.”
A U spokesperson did not answer questions about if the Jewish holiday calendar was looked at it while it was being built.
“Religious freedom is important, and we know how religious observances can positively impact mental health and resilience,” Croson’s statement said. “We will continue to work with students to accommodate their needs and to ensure that they can practice their faith without interfering with their educational progress.”
Said Kaplan: “The U has promised to ensure we don’t run into the same problem in 2032 — the next time this happens.”