BERNARDS TWP., NJ - Student and parent speakers continued Monday night to press the Bernards Township Board of Education to close the schools on Diwali, the most important religious holiday for people of the Hindu, Jain and Sikh faiths.
Four Ridge High School students and three adult women spoke in the public portion of the April 9 meeting. Many other speakers on the same subject were heard at the March 26 meeting.
Their arguments revolved around the importance of the holiday to a fast-growing segment of the township population. Other religions, with smaller numbers of residents, see schools closed on their holidays, they said, suggesting an inconsistent policy.
Maanav Arni, a junior at Ridge, said Diwali represented the victory of light over darkness, and thus knowledge over evil. However, he said he and other students are forced to miss all or part of the Diwali celebrations with their families in order to study or prepare for the next day’s classes. Even if they accept the excused absence that the school grants them, students said they must choose between celebrating their heritage and falling behind in school.
Roshni Tandon, a freshman at the high school, said for the past few years she had been unable to participate in all of the Diwali ceremonies. Instead of attending temple, she was studying for a chemistry test, she said.
“I was forgetting who I was,” she said, and asked the board to give Hindu students “one day to truly remember who we are.”
Arni said he asked the Board of Education five years ago to confer religious holiday status on Diwali, and in the intervening years, “I have found the power of my voice,” he said. He implored the board to “please wake up.”
An adult, Sundai Rao, asked the board to “represent the student body in a fair and equitable manner” that balances the religious holiday against educational priorities.
Census information shows that the Asian population in the township grew from 525 in 1990 to more than 7,000 in 2015. That figure encompasses many nations and many faiths. It is estimated that Asian residents comprise about one-quarter of the township’s population.
Diwali’s main festival was on Oct. 30 in 2016 and Oct. 19 in 2017 and will fall on Nov. 7 this year.
The Board of Education had heard similar requests in previous years, but declined to add an extra day to the school calendar.
A community group, Basking Ridge Indian Community, asked the board in mid-March to close schools next Nov. 7. The board said it is too late to affect the next school year’s calendar, as determined by a policy adopted in 2017 that sets March 1 as a deadline for changes.
The BRIC request, according to an email supplied by the school administration, claimed, “The board has the authority to make changes to the calendar when it sees fit to do so. The board has shown this last year when it approved the addition of MLK (Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday) date as a holiday to this year's calendar.”
BRIC claimed the school calendar “recognizes children of some faiths, and not the others,” reads the email. “Bernards Township’s faith composition has changed over the years; therefore we urge the Board to be inclusive and fair in recognizing the priorities of children of Hindu, Jain and Sikh faiths.”
The BRIC group asked to meet with the “Calendar Committee” but was told the protocol was to email members or to address the full board during the public comment portion of meetings. The full board could decide whether to send the request to the Policy Committee for consideration.
The board emailed BRIC that the change to include Martin Luther King Jr. Day was approved at the Feb. 27, 2017, public meeting in response to requests from residents who addressed the board at several meetings dating back to December of 2016.
Millburn and Glen Rock have voted to observe a holiday on Diwali, according to the BRIC group, which noted Bernards Township’s Indian population is larger than either of those communities.
“Equal and just representation of our children’s faith is their right,” reads a part of one BRIC email.