Diwali to be a School Holiday in West Hartford

Adopted West Hartford Public Schools 2024-2025 calendar. Screenshot

The West Hartford Board of Education voted to adopt the 2024-2025 calendar, with Diwali included as a school holiday.

By Ronni Newton

West Hartford Public Schools will be closed on Nov. 1, 2024 for the observance of Diwali, following a second reading and adoption of the calendar for the 2024-2025 academic year by the Board of Education at its May 16 meeting.

The vote was 6-0 in favor of the proposed calendar, with Republican Gayle Harris abstaining.

The first reading of the proposed 2024-2025 calendar was held on Feb. 22, 2023, and Harris, along with Republican Ethan Goldman, had asked if prior to the final vote the Board could establish some clear guidelines or metrics to use in deciding which holidays should become part of the calendar.

Board Chair Lorna Thomas-Farquharson said the Board had paused to look further into the matter, and “efforts were looked into how we can establish a metric, a rubric, a process that is for how can we get this into the calendar” without breaching any rights to confidentiality since the district can’t ask students what holidays they celebrate.

“We do know that adding Diwali to the calendar was put here for various reasons, for good reasons – one of them certainly being that we have a very large population of Nepalese within our community, the highest in the state of Connecticut,” Thomas-Farquharson said.

She added, however, that “we do want to be transparent that in terms of having a strict process or concrete metric we do not have that,” but do want to be receptive to people in the community in a fair and equitable way. Other holidays will have to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Superintendent Paul Vicinus added that Diwali is a five-day festival “that carries dramatic significance within the Hindu religion – the equivalent of major holidays of other major religions, and a time of great celebration for families.”

Goldman said that although he understands why, as Thomas-Farquharson said, they can’t just ask people about the holidays they celebrate, he still believes there should be guidelines. “Otherwise, I don’t know what the rules are … I just don’t want to vote for it and then we’ll come back to this next year.”

Vicinus was appointed superintendent after the first reading of the 2024-2025 calendar, but said he appreciates the process that was undertaken to look into determining a process for adding holidays. But, he noted, “the dramatic increase in the Nepalese population in West Hartford is a source of pride,” and he respects the discussion to add Diwali because of what it means in the culture.

“It certainly aligns to our mission, our culture, and our ongoing efforts of supporting diversity, and it certainly seems to be responsive to community needs,” Vicinus said.

Goldman said he just really doesn’t want it to be open-ended, and Thomas-Farquharson said the intent of establishing a process can be pursued but there needs to be some flexibility.

Harris said she was a little bit surprised that since the first reading there has not been any further progress in developing a method to make decisions about holidays. The reasoning behind closing schools for the Jewish holidays in West Hartford, even when she was growing up, was that “the amount of students at that time and the amount of staff that were calling out on those days were so great that it would have made it almost impossible to run the schools.”

Harris said her concern is not with Diwali, and it’s not easy, but “this potentially opens up the door for other people to request holidays off. … I feel that to some degree that we have to have some way to make the decision.”

Thomas-Farquharson said while they were “hoping for some kind of concrete brass tacks way” to make decisions about holidays, there is no clear-cut solution at this time. Regarding observing Diwali, she said there is congruence with the population that lives in the West Hartford community.

Vininus said asking the Board to weigh “the importance of a cultural issue against the density of the population” would create a challenge. However, if the Board looks at the calendar as a whole and the impact adding a holiday could have on the last day of the school year, that could help in making the decision.

“This is not about Diwali for me, it’s just about a general sense of how we make these decisions,” Harris reiterated. She said she has already had emails asking for a holiday for the end of Ramadan and another holiday. “There’s got to be some way to make the decisions or it’s going to be a never-ending stream, especially when we talk about equity and inclusion. … I think that it’s really important to think about that.”

Diwali, known as a Festival of Lights, is a significant cultural holiday observed in India and other South Asian countries, and is one of the major religious festivals celebrated in Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism. In recent years there have been efforts to in Connecticut and elsewhere to add the holiday to public school calendars to allow those who celebrate to spend time with their families without missing academic or other activities, and according to enepalese.com, local schools districts in Avon, Newington, and South Windsor had the day off on Oct. 24, 2022.

Diwali is based on the lunar calendar, and in 2023 will fall on a Sunday so it will not impact the school calendar.

The West Hartford Public Schools district traditionally has students return for the school year on a Wednesday, easing the transition back to the classroom with a shorter day and a three-day week. The 2024-2025 calendar includes the first day of school on Aug. 28, 2024, and the last day of school – if there are no snow days – on June 11, 2025.

Other school holidays/vacations in 2024-2025 include Labor Day, Rosh Hashanah, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Election Day (no school for students but an in-service day for teachers), Thanksgiving (schools closed for the day after Thanksgiving), holiday recess (includes Christmas and New Years Day), Martin Luther King Jr. Day, winter recess (includes Presidents Day), spring recess (includes Good Friday), and Memorial Day. Yom Kippur is traditionally a school holiday but in 2024 falls on a Saturday.

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