Members of the Oak Park and River Forest High School board voted unanimously May 13 to table a decision on recognizing Yom Kippur as a nonattendance day in the 2022-23 school calendar. After a near half-hour discussion, the vote came when board members felt they needed more time before making a final decision.
The impetus for the discussion came from a group of Jewish students who urged the school to recognize the Jewish holiday.
During the special meeting, the calendar committee, which includes Greg Johnson, the incoming superintendent, and Roxana Sanders, assistant superintendent for human resources, opened the conversation by saying that OPRF’s fall semester is shorter than its spring semester. That makes the decision to consider Yom Kippur a nonattendance day difficult, because the holiday is observed in September and having another day off could potentially affect the schedule for finals and winter break.
“That’s why we’re so sensitive in trying to make sure that we can do everything we can,” said Johnson.
At the meeting, Johnson and Sanders presented the District 200 board with two options. The first is that the district could make Good Friday, a Christian holiday, an attendance day for staff and students, which would create an additional day for winter break.
In a memo to the board, the committee said removing “the only non-federal holiday that is tied to a religion from the school calendar” contributes to the school’s equity mission. The only downside is that those who celebrate Yom Kippur or other religious holidays could still miss work and school.
The other option is to observe Yom Kippur as a nonattendance day. By doing so, the committee said that would most likely push back finals, the start of winter break and the spring semester.
The committee also said in the memo that honoring Yom Kippur could “open the door” to other religious groups who may ask to consider their holidays as a day off. That could lead to a further imbalance of the days between the two semesters and impact the required number of student attendance days, the committee wrote in the memo.
“We just don’t know if there will be additional requests coming our way,” Sanders said. “And, if we grant a religious holiday to one group, then what rationale could we provide for not granting another religious holiday to another religious group?”
Board member Fred Arkin said he felt unready to decide and had some questions. For starters, Arkin asked how many Jewish students attend OPRF and how school districts with large Jewish student populations have handled honoring Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashana. He also wanted to include local Jewish leaders and members of their congregation in the conversation.
“I feel that this issue is being rushed to our board table without enough background data and engagement,” Arkin said.
Arkin also took a moment to share his own experience of growing up Jewish in Oak Park. From grade school to graduate school and for much of his professional life, Arkin said he remembered teachers and employers respecting his religious observances and working with him to meet his needs and hoped that OPRF has done the same for its students.
“Students should not be penalized for missing a day, that work should be accepted the next day or day after, and that no tests should take place,” he said. “I think those are minimum – bare minimum – accommodations that need to be made.”
Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams, who spoke after Arkin, added, “I don’t want anyone who’s watching or is in this space to think that we’re not wanting to consider the request of any of our families. I think I need to make that clear.”
Pruitt-Adams went on to say the district does work to accommodate students who choose to miss school for a religious holiday, and those absences are considered an excused absence. But what Pruitt-Adams has also heard from those students is that they are most concerned about losing a day of learning, which is a “legitimate concern.”
At this point, it’s about “trying to find that balance,” she said. “We have always been open to sitting and listening to anyone who comes to us with a concern for a holiday consideration.”
Pruitt-Adams also told the board that schools are legally not allowed to ask students and staff about their religious beliefs. That is information the district is unable to collect and “would never be able to,” she said.
For students such as Zoe Klein, Tim Mellman and Ania Sacks, watching the board meeting over Zoom and listening to the members’ discussion gave them some hope. The three were among several Jewish students who initially reached out to school administrators and asked to include Yom Kippur as a nonattendance day.
“We were happy they were talking about it, and while we were expecting a vote initially, we are happy they decided to table the discussion to get more information and work toward a more equitable religious plan,” Klein said.
“Our voice can have a powerful impact,” Mellman added. “I think that’s really great, and I hope that it is continued in some way in the future.”