Oct. 24 (UPI) — On Monday for the first time, Diwali is a day off for students in the Spring-Ford Area School District in Pennsylvania, allowing those who observe the Hindu holiday to celebrate without missing classes.
Diwali — which also is celebrated by Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains — is a five-day Festival of Lights that celebrates the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness. The holiday falls on a different date each fall, based on the Indian lunar calendar, and Monday is the main day of celebration this year.
The district earlier this year added Diwali and the Muslim holiday of Eid al Fitr, which was celebrated on May 2, to the 2022-23 holiday calendar.
Superintendent Robert Rizzo said students and parents pushed for the additions and provided the administration and the Spring-Ford School Board with information about the meaning behind the holidays and how neighboring districts recognized those days.
Because school districts are not allowed to extend the school year beyond 180 student days and 190 staff days, deciding what needed to stay on the holiday calendar and what could be adjusted took a while, he said.
“Planning for a school calendar takes months and we work through multiple iterations to accommodate the required staff and student days, to provide the necessary professional development opportunities for our staff, and to honor the labor agreement we have with our teachers,” Rizzo said in an email to UPI.
Spring-Ford is fully or partially closed for several staff in-service days out of the calendar year, he said. Some days fall on federal holidays, some on religious holidays and others on election days.
In New York City, officials announced Thursday they plan to make Diwali a public school holiday beginning in 2023.
State Assemblywoman Jenifer Rajkumar said she has introduced legislation that makes room for Diwali by removing Anniversary Day, “an obscure and antiquated day” created in the 1800s, from the school calendar. New York law requires that schools have a minimum of 180 days of instruction.
“The time has come to recognize over 200,000 New Yorkers of the Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Jain faiths who celebrate Diwali, the Festival of Lights,” Rajkumar said. “For over two decades, South Asians and Indo-Caribbeans in New York have been fighting for the Diwali school holiday. I stand on the shoulders of those advocates.”
New York City Mayor Eric Adams described the designation of the holiday as an educational moment: “When we acknowledge Diwali, we are going to encourage children to learn about Diwali.”
“We’re going to have them start talking about what it is to celebrate the Festival of Lights and how to turn the light on within yourself,” the mayor said.
Rajan Zed, a Reno, Nev., man who is president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, has been encouraging schools across the country to recognize Diwali as a holiday, especially in areas with large Hindu populations.
In an Oct. 18 news release, Zed said dozens of public school districts are closing Monday for Diwali and the Hindu community is delighted by the broader community’s acceptance of the holiday. He urged private and parochial schools to look into doing the same.
Zed said it is not fair that Hindu pupils have to be in class on the day of their most important festival while schools close for observances of other religions.
“Holidays of all major religions should be honored and no one should be penalized for practicing their faith,” the news release says.
Declaring Diwali as an official holiday also would increase awareness of other religions and make students enlightened citizens, Zed said.
If a school is not closed for a religious holiday, students can ask to be excused from class that day, said Steven Freeman, the Anti-Defamation League’s vice president of civil rights. ADL encourages schools to let the students take the day off and allow them to make up assignments and tests that they miss, he said.
Another positive step schools can take is to circulate a calendar of major religious holidays of different faiths so teachers can plan accordingly, Freeman said.
ADL sends reminders to school at the start of the school year listing the dates of major Jewish holidays and noting that students might be unable to attend classes or other school events due to religious observance. The organization will ask that teachers not schedule major tests on those days.
But there are times when scheduling events on a religious holiday can’t be avoided, Freeman said.
“Sometimes, we’ll run into a conflict where somebody has a major athletic tournament or a debate on a day that’s a Jewish holiday or a Sabbath,” he said. “Then it’s up to the student or the family to choose what they want to do.”