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NEWINGTON – Last school year, a 9-year-old student wrote to Maureen Brummett, superintendent of Newington Public Schools.

“He wanted Eid al Fitr to be put on the school holiday calendar because it presented a challenge for him and his sister, who were torn when things were scheduled at school that holiday,” Brummett said. “I promised him at the time that I would ask the school board to think about it.”

All autumn the Newington Board of Education debated the proposal and during these discussions two more public holidays, Diwali and Epiphany, were added to the list of scheduled days off from school.

Newington, which officially adopted the updated calendar this spring for the coming fall, joins just a handful of other Connecticut districts in recognizing these holidays on the school calendar. Newington, Avon and South Windsor are the only three districts in the state to celebrate Diwali with a day off from school in the 2022-23 school year.

Brummett said the decision reflects the district’s increasing diversity.

“We are increasingly focused on justice for all of our students and acknowledging all of the different holidays that they celebrate,” Brummett said. “It came down to what message we want to send to the community.”

The Christian and Jewish holidays already included in the school calendar will remain in place.

Diwali is celebrated by Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs. The festival falls on October 24 in the coming school year. Eid al Fitr, a Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan, is a school holiday in Bridgeport, Avon, South Windsor and Hamden, celebrated on April 21, 2023.

Students across the state who celebrate holidays face the choice of missing an academic day or an opportunity to celebrate a holiday with their family and community.

One method Brummett and the Newington Board of Education used to assess the need for the new holidays was by examining a pattern of absences on those days in the past. While students were excused from attending to celebrate, many expressed concern that they were missing out on important academic time.

“We’re doing all of this to encourage better student achievement, especially as we become more diverse,” Brummett said.

Last year, about 50 students in Newington were absent from the day that Eid al Fitr was celebrated.

“I can tell you that some kids still came to school even though they would have preferred to be home to celebrate but were worried about a lack of academic work,” Brummett said.

Rajeev Desai of the Vallabhdham Newington Temple began lobbying the Newington Board of Education and the Superintendent for school vacations. He recently moved his activism to Rocky Hill.

“You should know your roots,” Desai said. “If they don’t come to the party, they won’t know.”

The US Census shows that Rocky Hill’s Asian population has grown from 9.8 percent in 2010 to more than 18 percent in 2020.

“Once we get it in Rocky Hill, I want to make it a state holiday,” Desai said.

Eric Scoville, communications director for the state Department of Education, said the decision on which holidays to include is left to each school district.

“The agency helps districts develop school calendars that meet the diverse needs of their school communities,” Scoville said. “Ultimately, the authority rests with the local education authorities to approve the academic calendar for each district.”

The festival of Diwali makes its debut on Avon’s school calendar in 2022. Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, applauded Avon, South Windsor and Newington for the decision to add Diwali to the school calendar but, like Desai, urged wider recognition.

“The awareness of ‘other’ religions created by holidays like Diwali would make Connecticut students the well-fed, balanced and enlightened citizens of tomorrow,” Zed said in a press release.

Adding three holidays to the calendar was a relatively easy process, according to board member Jessica Weaver for the Newington Board of Education.

The district distributed a survey asking parents, students, and teachers what they thought of the introduction of new holidays. The board also held a public hearing where Desai made a presentation specifically on Diwali.

“We gave them two or three options for what the calendar for the coming year would look like,” Weaver said. “We went with whoever the majority wanted … after that it all came together pretty quickly.”

The same poll also found that parents and teachers wanted to make Columbus Day Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Weaver said the decision to diversify the calendar was a big step in recognizing the South Asian community.

“If we look at Connecticut as a whole and the districts as a whole, we have minimal representation of South Asians, and it’s so important that we can celebrate these things, especially religious holidays,” Weaver said. “Other counties can and should do that.”

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