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Yom Kippur clashes with student count day in Michigan schools

Superintendents will count Michigan students on Oct. 5, but many children will miss school to observe a major Jewish holiday.

It’s a crucial day for Michigan school districts trying to maximize state funding, but this year it coincides with Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year when the observer fasts, prays and abstains from work and school.

By law, state education funding in Michigan public schools is largely based on student attendance on the first Wednesday in October. At stake is at least $9,150 per student, the base funding provided in the state’s education aid budget.

Districts with large Jewish populations, including West Bloomfield and Walled Lake, close on Yom Kippur. State law allows these districts to apply for waivers, and the Michigan Department of Education granted five, allowing these districts to use Thursday, Oct. 6, as their counting day instead.

But it’s more complicated for schools that are in session that day but have students observing Yom Kippur.

“No provision in current state law authorizes the state superintendent to grant a waiver to a local school district that is in session on count day,” wrote Deputy State Superintendent Kyle Guerrant. last week in a memo to superintendents.

These districts can count missing students if their absences are excused and if they return to school within 30 days and attend all scheduled classes. Absences for religious celebrations are considered excused.

It’s helpful but it’s not fair, said Ann Arbor Public Schools superintendent Jeanice Swift, who will be in session on Yom Kippur. She wants the same flexibility as districts that aren’t in session — to move count day to a date that isn’t a religious holiday.

Having a high-stakes school day on a religious holiday conflicts with her district’s core value of respecting different faiths, Swift said.

More than ten years ago, the district brought together a group of community religious leaders to create a calendar of religious holidays and rank observances by importance. They designated Yom Kippur as a three-star holiday, the highest category. The district prohibits major exams, exams for major exams, standardized tests, athletic and artistic tryouts, and major events like proms on three-star days. Other three-star holidays are Ramadan, Rosh Hashanah, Christmas, Epiphany, Passover, Good Friday, Palm Sunday, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

“It’s a model that’s been emulated across the country because it’s truly a community that comes together to observe and respect each other’s holiest days,” Swift said. “It’s about providing sensitivity to the holy days in the most practiced religions in our community.”

Guerrant says he understands this argument, but State Law does not allow waivers for districts that remain in session on the holiday.

“It’s a very important day for the Jewish community and to have that overlap with count day seems disrespectful,” Guerrant said in a phone interview. “We understand and appreciate these concerns, but we are at an impasse in the sense that we do not have the ability to provide a waiver due to the way the law is structured at this time.”

Swift said she has spoken with lawmakers about changing the law, but no legislation has yet been introduced.

For now, MDE will work with districts to make sure every student is counted, Guerrant said.

“We want to make sure that a district is not penalized financially,” he said. “We want to make sure they don’t miss a student.”

Tracie Mauriello covers state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan. Contact her at [email protected]

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