MADISON, NJ – The Madison School Board reopened discussion on its updated athletics and extracurricular policy Tuesday at its regular meeting after the Huddle Club petitioned board members to reconsider the prohibition of all activities on days when school is closed for religious holidays.
Board President Leslie Lajewski acknowledged the petition at the start of Tuesday’s meeting.
Though the revised policy was officially approved nearly five months ago on Dec. 12, clashing viewpoints among parents and other members of the community who have spoken for or against this policy change seem to just now be coming to head.
By Wednesday afternoon, the Huddle Club’s online petition had 128 signatures—and nearly all of two dozen comments posted on the petition page said the board should reverse its decision.
“We feel this is a bad policy,” the petition read. “There are many reasons why this policy is ill conceived and unnecessary.”
Superintendent Mark Schwarz did admit on Tuesday that the updated policy puts Madison school programs at a disadvantage with competitors that do not have the same rules, particularly when it comes to athletics.
The revision puts non-observing kids at another disadvantage, according to Nick Spagnoletti of Pomeroy Road: Student-athletes who wish to attend practices on these days are no longer allowed. Under this policy, players who want to take advantage of every opportunity they are given to improve their athletic abilities now have less chances to do so, he said.
Banning practices on these days for certain sports, including football, could force coaches to hold makeup practices on Sundays, according to the petition.
For some Christians, including Madison High School senior Harry Whitehead, Sunday is also a holy day. As he asked the board to reverse its decision, Whitehead said that students who do not observe the religious holidays for which school is closed may still observe the Sabbath and regard Sunday as a day of rest.
If every one of these blackout holidays fell on a weekday, practices and activities would at the most be disallowed on three different days throughout the school year. Public schools in Madison are currently closed on Good Friday, which always falls on a weekday; but dates for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur vary, and may sometimes fall on a weekend.
“The impact will not be as significant as perhaps others are are making it out to be,” said Ari Magedoff of Madison Avenue, who applauded the board for its revision.
Madison resident Owyn Fischer, who also spoke in favor of the policy, said the updated version allows families more time to practice “sincere religious beliefs.”
He nearly cried during his address to the board as he spoke about how “incredibly difficult” it was for him to read online comments from groups that are against the board’s revision.
Although policy supporters who addressed the board on Tuesday seemed to be in the minority, several of those who spoke in favor of the change said they feel it minimizes the chance that a student would experience negative repercussions if they forego a practice or activity for religious reasons.
Though coaches and staff cannot punish students if they miss practices and activities for religious reasons, there are other factors at play, according to Magedoff.
“Being a kid is tough enough, but being forced to highlight that maybe you’re different from other athletes or students in an activity because you’re missing practice I think will impact children more than we think,” he said.
“It’s not about winning games. It’s about preventing our children from having to make such anguishing decisions between sports, activities and observing religious holidays.”
The change in the district’s athletic and extracurricular policy was not part of its original revision, which was first updated to include a blackout period for all activities during the third week in July.
Prohibiting these activities on days when school is closed for religious holidays was brought up by former board member Debra Coen when the original draft of the updated policy was first discussed by the full board during its Oct. 10 meeting. Coen lost her seat last fall when she was not re-elected, but did serve on the board when the policy was revised and approved in December
Board Vice President Lisa Ellis was the only member to vote “no” last winter, and said she felt the policy overreaches when it comes to religious holidays.
David Irwin, who was elected to the board last fall along with Heather Reddy and Pamela Yousey, agreed, said the policy has unintentionally created a polarizing effect among parents.
As public comments on Tuesday seemed to shift toward religion, Schwarz reminded parents that although the revision does concern religious holidays, the board and district remain secular. He said schools are closed on these days not for religious reasons, but because administrators anticipate a high number of absences.
“It would be really, really tragic if a matter regarding something that isn’t central to our purpose as a school district, which is to educate children, became something that fractured our community,” he said.
“At the end of the day, we are here to educate kids first and foremost.”
Lawjewski agreed. “This really affects the community, and I do not want this to be a divisive policy,” she said. “I don’t think anyone intended it to be that when it was originally discussed.”
She suggested that Schwarz conduct a survey that could help the board get a better sense of how many community members support and oppose the revision.
No action has yet been taken to reverse or keep the policy, and for now its future is unknown. The board plans to bring this issue back to the table at its next meeting on May 22, she said.
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