Some Minnesota schools change first day of 2021-22 school year due to Rosh Hashana

Peter Warren, Star Tribune
·4 min read

Jessica Ostrov was flipping through a 2021 calendar when something caught her eye: Rosh Hashana is scheduled to start on Labor Day night, much earlier than usual.

And the day after Labor Day? Her son's first day of school in St. Paul on Sept. 7, right in the middle of the two-day Jewish holiday.

A query of others in a Facebook group of Jewish mothers in Minnesota revealed other parents stumbling onto the same problem.

"As soon as I put that out there," Ostrov said, "the response was just enormous."

Some Minnesota districts had been aware of the issue well before Ostrov's post and had already made the adjustment. But others are shifting the first day of school for the 2021-2022 academic year after parents and organizations raised concerns. Many of those districts said it was an oversight and have fixed or are working to fix it as they hope to accommodate all students.

"It doesn't surprise us that they're motivated to work with the Jewish community or any other community that has a significant religious observance that may conflict with [a] school calendar," said Steve Hunegs, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC).

At least 16 metro districts will not start the day after Labor Day and four others are in the process of changing the start date, according to the JCRC.

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, is considered the most holy day on the Jewish calendar along with Yom Kippur, which occurs 10 days later. Rosh Hashana takes place over two days and two nights, although many Jewish families only celebrate the first 24 hours.

In certain areas of the country, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are school holidays every year. Almost all public schools in the New York City and Philadelphia metro areas have both Jewish holidays off, and many schools near Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C., have the holidays marked as off days on their official calendars.

That is not the case in Minnesota. When the holidays fall during the school week, Jewish parents have to decide whether to take their kids out of school to celebrate or let them go to class.

"It puts a lot of pressure on the kids, and the kids then put the pressure on the parents, and then each family has to decide: do you let the student go to school so they don't miss that test or that lesson?" said Kara Rosenwald, a parent with children in the Wayzata school district. "Missing three days in the first two weeks of school — that's a huge chunk. That could be a lot of catch up."

The decision is even more difficult this year. The conflict with Rosh Hashana comes on a first day of school that could symbolize a return to more normal student routines after more than a year of pandemic disruption.

When parents started reaching out to their school districts, administrators seemed to understand the problem and acknowledged the oversight.

At a Jan. 25 Eden Prairie schools board meeting, Superintendent Josh Swanson said the district was not aware of the conflict when creating its calendar for the 2021-22 school year. The school board will vote Monday on an updated calendar that pushes the school start to Sept. 8.

"Honestly, we missed it," Swanson said. "So we've made the necessary adaptations for this moment."

The St. Paul district's calendar committee will suggest a Sept. 9 start date — to account for both days Rosh Hashana — when it makes its recommendation to the school board in March, according to spokesman Kevin Burns.

The Orono, Rosemont-Apple Valley-Eagan and Bloomington districts all overlooked the conflict the first time around and have since pushed back their start date to Sept. 8. In March, the St. Anthony-New Brighton school board will vote on moving the start to that date, too.

But college students won't catch a break at the University of Minnesota. Both the Twin Cities and Rochester campuses will start the Tuesday after Labor Day. The other three U campuses start before Labor Day.

Minnesota Hillel, the Jewish student center on the Twin Cities campus, alerted the university of the conflict in October 2018, according to Hillel Executive Director Benjie Kaplan, but the university did not make a change.

The first day is mandatory for U students, but there is an official exception for recognized religious holidays such as Rosh Hashana. In a statement, Provost Rachel Croson said the U is adding accommodations to account for the conflict, including sending reminders to instructors and pushing back the full tuition refund deadline.

"Due to the constraints around the calendar this fall — the requirement of starting classes after the Minnesota State Fair, the need to meet instructional day requirements for accreditation, the need to hold six days of final examinations — it was not possible to set an alternative calendar that would move the first day of classes outside of Rosh Hashana and also satisfy all academic requirements," Croson said.

Peter Warren • 612-673-1713