By Jeremy Appel
(AJNews) – A Nov. 30 Edmonton Public School Board meeting where trustees discussed the possibility of providing the students days off for select multi-faith holidays, including Yom Kippur, opened with a Hanukkah greeting.
“I think we could all use a little more light in our lives,” said board chair Trisha Estabrooks.
The discussion came as the board approved its 2022-23 school calendar, which has five additional days off due to budget cuts.
Advocates said this was an opportunity to coordinate those days off with Yom Kippur, Bandi Chhor Divas and Diwali, Winter Solstice, and National Indigenous Peoples Day.
The board was also asked to schedule days off for Yom Kippur, Eid-al Fitr, Eid-al-Adha and National Indigenous Peoples Day for the 2023-24 school year.
However, the board voted only in favour of having National Indigenous Peoples Day as an official day off, moving a proposed professional development day from May 19, 2023, to June 21, 2023, to do so, the Edmonton Journal reported.
Superintendent Darrell Robinson said there were operational challenges in having each of the proposed holidays off, since some of them fall on instructional days, conflict with exams or already occur on non-instructional days.
Robinson also pointed out that under the Education Act, schools already have to give time off to students for religious reasons.
Jewish Federation of Edmonton CEO Stacey Leavitt-Wright told AJNews that JFED supports the board giving days off for multi-faith holidays, as well as the development of a multi-faith calendar that shows all the different cultural holidays.
“Having instructional days off for important religious holidays normalizes the observance of the day for all faiths,” Wright said in an emailed statement
“The push to include Yom Kippur as time off in the school calendar was welcomed by the Jewish Federation as this is our holiest day of the year. “
Prior to the vote, advocates explained to the board why a multi-faith calendar is necessary.
“This is an important conversation that this school board needs to have, because there are many students who are alienated, and their values and their backgrounds are not normalized,” Trent Daley, vice chair of the Edmonton Anti-Racism Advisory Committee, told the meeting.
“Even if they can be excused presently, they will miss school and are not reflected in the calendar.”
Arwa Elhag-Idris of the Islamic Family and Social Services Organization told the board that since three of the four holidays occur on non-instruction days, it’s a small ask that would align the board with its professed value of inclusion.
Elhag-Idris said this conversation reminds her of when she was in Grade 6 at an Edmonton school and wasn’t allowed to take the first three days of Eid off, despite one of those days falling on the weekend, contrasting this experience with the two weeks everyone receives off for Christmas.
“I was told the curriculum was more important than taking the day off, and I left feeling crushed knowing that I wouldn’t be heard,” she said.
Board chair Estabrooks said the board will consider expanding the diversity of school holidays.
“I have no doubt that this board will bring that forward and we will advocate strongly because our community has told us that this is what matters,” she said.
Jeremy Appel is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Alberta Jewish News.