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Schools rethink Good Friday closing policies

A majority of public schools in the Greater Boston area will be closed on Good Friday, the most solemn of Christian holy days.

But 17 school districts will hold classes, in cities such as Malden and Marlborough, and towns such as Belmont and Georgetown. The number of schools open changes as districts strive to balance the secular school calendar with religious holy days.

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The Old Rochester Regional School Committee — which represents Marion, Mattapoisett, and Rochester — next month may reconsider its March vote to hold school on Good Friday in 2015. All district schools are closed for the holy day this year.

“I don’t know if that will happen,” said Jim O’Brien, chairman of the School Committee, on the proposed change for next year. “But since we voted, we’ve heard from people who have concerns about going to school on that day.”

Similar questions are being raised in Bedford, Belmont, and Gloucester. Meanwhile, the Christian holy day falling before the start of April school vacation week raised conflicts with teacher contracts in Malden, Marlborough, and the Nashoba Regional School District, which draws students from Bolton, Lancaster, and Stow.

The decision to hold school on a religious holiday is a local one. In general, school districts decide after reviewing the school population, said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

“It depends on the community, and what its demographics may be,” Scott said.

State and federal law requires a school district to accommodate teachers and students by allowing them to take personal days or excused absences. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issues a memo before the start of each school year, reminding districts of the requirements.

“You can’t introduce any new material, or test, on those days,” Scott said.

In Bedford, recent anti-Semitic incidents at the high school have prompted officials to rethink the policy on religious holidays, Superintendent Jon Sills said.

“The recent events around anti-Semitism has prompted us to reflect on a number of practices, including how we treat religious holidays,” Sills said.

Bedford schools are open on Good Friday and the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. But on Good Friday, students have a half day, and teachers a whole day, Sills said.

In Belmont, the district’s longstanding policy of opening a half day on Good Friday is being reevaluated, Superintendent Thomas Kingston said.

“It’s stipulated now in the teacher’s contract,” Kingston said. “But it’s under review in negotiations.”

The Gloucester School Committee will review its Good Friday policy at its meeting on April 30. In recent years, Good Friday has been a half day.

But this year, schools are closed. Next year, they are scheduled to be in session for a full day.

“We’re going to take a look at it, for a more consistent policy,” Superintendent Richard Safier said.

Some districts have eliminated religious holidays from the school calendar, out of a desire to treat all religions fairly, or to ensure the school year does not extend too far into June, educators said. The state requires at least 180 school days, but half days are included in the count.

Mansfield Public Schools will be off for Good Friday this year, but will be open for a full day in 2015, after the School Committee voted last year to eliminate all religious holidays from the school calendar, Superintendent Brenda Hodges said.

“As communities become more diverse, communities have to make sure they’re being equitable in all aspects of education,” Hodges said. “We have to look at what days we do, or don’t, hold classes, including looking at holidays that would occur during the school week.”

Mansfield formerly gave one day off for either of the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur if both fell during the school week, Hodges said.

Hodges said: “If both fell during the school year, then [the School Committee] made a decision, which would be off, and they usually chose Yom Kippur,” the most solemn Jewish holy day.

Georgetown schools for years have gone to school for a half day on Good Friday, School Superintendent Carol Jacobs said.

“Our district felt there needed to be an acknowledgment of the holiday, but we didn’t want to count it as a day off from school,” Jacobs said.

Four years ago, Harvard Public Schools eliminated Good Friday, Rosh Hashana, and Yom Kippur as school holidays.

“Harvard spent more than a year really investigating or debating the whole religious holiday issue,” said Superintendent Joseph Connelly. “[The School Committee] adopted a policy that would call for school to be in session during those three days. . . . It’s been successful.”

North Reading in 2012 made Good Friday a half day of school, to build flexibility into the calendar in case of excessive snow days, Superintendent Kathleen Willis said.

“We’ve continued the practice since then,” said Willis. “It allows us to attend school that day and have it count toward our 180-day [state requirement].”

Malden, one of the state’s most diverse school districts, two years ago eliminated all religious holidays from its calendar.

“We have contractual language that says teachers can’t use a personal day to extend a vacation,” said Malden Superintendent David DeRuosi.

But Good Friday was changed to a half day after nearly 400 teachers and classroom aides applied to take a personal day.

“We had so many requests, we could not have opened the schools safely,” DeRuosi said.

Teachers who wanted to observe the entire day are allowed to take a personal day, DeRuosi said.

But this year, the timing of Good Friday with the start of April school vacation, created a conflict. The teacher’s contract does not allow a teacher to take a personal day on the day before or right after a school vacation, DeRuosi said.

A one-time exception was made for this year, after some Malden teachers raised the question of religious freedom. The teacher’s union and school administrators agreed to suspend the language for this year, DeRuosi said.

Fewer than 40 of the 700 teachers and aides in the district applied to take a personal day, according to DeRuosi.

“Staffingwise, it’s a workable number for us,” he said.“We’ll have more teachers in the classrooms.”

In Marlborough, which has a full day of school on Good Friday, teachers had to apply to Superintendent Richard Langlois to take a personal day, a spokeswoman said.

“This Good Friday was unusual, since it fell right before spring break,” said Beth Wagner, the communication liaison for Marlborough schools. “They [teachers] needed to have it approved in advance, so that we could make sure we had appropriate staffing.”

The Nashoba Regional School District faced a dilemma of another kind.

The teacher’s contract requires that a professional development day be held the day after a night of parent-teacher conferences, which are scheduled for Thursday.

The district usually has a full day of school on Good Friday. But this year, students from Bolton, Lancaster, and Stow will have no school.

“The day off is more of a result of where we put the teacher conferences,” said Nashoba Superintendent Michael Wood. “We really try to have a faith-neutral calendar.”

Kathy McCabe can be reached at katherine.mccabe@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.
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