By Calvin Prashad
Last month, South Asian or Indo-Caribbean Hindu communities, nominally located in Jackson Heights, Flushing, Richmond Hill and Ozone Park, celebrated Diwali.
Diwali is also celebrated by adherents of the Sikh religion, a community that has grown substantially in Richmond Hill. This year, depending on the household, Diwali fell on Oct. 22 and Oct. 23, a Wednesday and Thursday.
While the idea of a federal or banking holiday for Diwali is farfetched, the notion that New York City public schools could close for this holiday is not. Under the current mayoral administration, public schools are, for the first time, slated to close for Lunar New Year and two Muslim holidays.
Closing schools on Lunar New Year was proposed in the state Legislature in 2011 by state Sen. Daniel Squadron (D — Lower Manhattan) and then-Assemblywoman Grace Meng (D — Flushing), Mayor Michael Bloomberg was adamantly against the idea. He noted that schools had started observing certain religious holidays to accommodate teachers, and reasoned that if the city observed every holiday, “there would be no school.”
However, as has been the case for several years in East Asian neighborhoods, schools would be mostly empty on Lunar New Year and no serious instruction takes place on that day. Under current policy, students may receive an excused absence on that day, though they would run the risk of missing tests and assignments.
The impetus to make the Lunar New Year a school holiday continued to build, attributable to the growing number of Asian-American pupils in the city, averaging nearly 15 percent across all grades, according to statistics recorded by the Department of Education. In the same DOE study, pupils born in China were second only to those born in the Dominican Republic and many more pupils were born in America to Asian immigrants.
A turning point occurred in the 2013 mayoral election, when both candidates endorsed adding Lunar New Year to the school calendar. Both the new mayor and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverto further announced their support for the policy change earlier this year.
In addition to Lunar New Year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to observe two Muslim holy days, Eid al-Fitr (the end of Ramadan) and Eid al-Adha as school holidays. However, not every instance of these religious observances will fall when school is in session.
But, the mayor did not commit to adding Diwali to the school calendar. Resolution 1863-2013, introduced by Council member Danny Dromm (D-Elmhurst), in July 2013, urged the Department of Education to establish Diwali as an official holiday for New York City students. The resolution garnered 15 co-sponsors, many from the Queens delegation.
As cited in Res. 1863-20913, there is already an official recognition of Diwali as a day of importance for Americans of Hindu and Sikh descent. Passaic and South Brunswick, both localities in New Jersey, have incorporated Diwali into school calendars. In addition, the White House has also celebrated Diwali every year since 2009.
For the average student, Diwali entails rushing home from school, helping parents cook a rushed meal and sweets for family members, a short religious observance and the traditional lighting of oil lamps. In keeping with the communal aspect of the holiday, Hindu temples tend to hold religious observance that night. In the spirit of the holiday, adherents also give their houses an entire cleaning. Muddling the importance of this holiday, however, are school responsibilities.
Currently, all city schools must provide 180 days of instruction. No matter the number of holidays added to the calendar, the city will need to meet this threshold; ensuring school closings do not adversely affect pupils.
As Queens continues to diversify, adding just one day for American Hindus falls well within the Chancellor’s prerogative to provide “reasonable accommodation” for religious observance. In allowing schools to close for religious or cultural holidays, it represents an admission, however token, that the dogma of that group is important to the city and recognizes their cultural heritage as part of this city’s fabric.