After weeks of debate, The Joint School Committee on March 24 voted to bring back the Good Friday holiday for 2017 after weighing the particular placement of Good Friday on the day before the start of April vacation.
The committee was scheduled for a vote on the final school year 2016/2017 calendar, which still had one glaring date still unresolved: the Good Friday school day.
Debate ensued that led to the swaying of a number of committee members once in favor of school on Good Friday, April 16, 2017.
“The biggest concern that we’ve had as we’ve addressed the calendar … is its location going into the April vacation,” said Superintendent Doug White. The school calendar, he said, has often been arranged to accommodate Thanksgiving, for example, by giving students the day before that holiday off in anticipation of higher absenteeism and the educational value of that school day.
White, along with a the majority of the school administration and staff, preferred taking April 16 off in anticipation of students and staff taking the day off, not only to observe Good Friday, but also to take the day as an early start to April vacation.
“[The preference] is not so much related to the purpose of that day,” said White, “rather where it’s located in accordance with next year’s April vacation.”
Mattapoisett School Committee Chairman Jim Higgins, consistent in his opinion that Good Friday should be observed as a day off, maintained that stance and quickly called for a motion to restore Good Friday to a day off. Further debate rapidly followed, interrupting a hasty call for a vote.
“When you have school with 14 staff members out,” said Marion School Committee member Christine Winters reflecting on last year, “I think it’s sending a message to us…. I think our communities are trying to tell us something.”
Old Rochester Regional School Committee member Cynthia Johnson disagreed.
“I believe it is inappropriate to use a … legitimate school day as a religious holiday,” said Johnson, “and I believe our courts have been very clear about the separation of church and state, and I think we should have school on Good Friday.”
If Good Friday hadn’t fallen on the day before vacation, wondered Rochester School Committee member Robin Rounseville, would the committee still be considering giving the day off?
Jennifer Kulak, also on the Rochester School Committee asked, “Are we going to have the Friday off before every vacation because some parents want to leave early? That’s my question….”
“I’ve looked at the data,” said White. “When you look at what’s happening and what happened last year, that was our highest attendance absences across the board. For me, going into testing and assessment points of view, I have to take that into consideration.”
Higgins pointed out that having Good Friday off from school has been a tradition and argued that other communities with a larger Jewish population observe days off for religious holidays.
“We shouldn’t make families make a choice between their religious practices and missing school,” Higgins said.
Kulak rebutted, “Stores weren’t open on Sundays before when I was a kid. They are now. Times have changed,” she said before asking for a refresher on last year’s Good Friday absenteeism data.
“It was way above normal,” said ORR High School Principal Michael Devoll. “Twenty-percent absent.”
ORR Junior High Principal Kevin Brogioli said 90 students were out, roughly 21 percent.
“For me, religion aside” said Marion School Committee member Christine Marcolini, who before had adamantly opposed giving the day off, “it’s always been whether it’s a good day for education and whether or not we are able to adequately staff our buildings.”
Having so many teachers absent, “It makes me go, ‘eh…’”
Marcolini continued, “Even though we are able to get substitute [teachers] … it’s not the same as having the classroom teachers in there. It’s not the same quality day of education as it is on any other days and I don’t want us to … miss that fact as well.”
Marion School Committee member Kate Houdelette, also formerly against taking the day off, concurred.
“Fourteen teachers out is just too much for a school to absorb,” said Houdelette.
Devoll looked ahead to the next day, March 25, the 2016 Good Friday day of school.
“Just from one school’s perspective,” said Devoll, “we are looking at a day of school tomorrow where the directive of the narrative is ‘don’t assign a test, don’t assign a quiz, don’t take a field trip, don’t, don’t, don’t.’ What’s the value in that?”
On the Superintendency Union side, the vote passed 6-2, with Rounseville and Sharon Hartley opposing the day off. On the ORR School Committee side, the vote passed 7-1, with Johnson opposing.
One further concern was where to add in the extra day to make up for the Good Friday day off. Some advocated for adding the day at the beginning of the school year to avoid a choppy start to the school year due to teacher meetings and professional development, while others opted to add the day at the end of the year.
After a few cumbersome motions on both sides and a couple aborted votes to accommodate further discussion, the vote was unanimous on both sides to add the day to the end of the school year.
The next meeting of The Joint School Committee is scheduled for May 19 at 6:30 pm at the ORR Junior High School media room.
By Jean Perry