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  • Writer's pictureSarah Ancel

Institutions should create an equitable holiday policy. Here’s how.

‘Tis the season — lights on houses, presents under the tree, imagery of snowflakes and Saint Nicholas, the smell of pine needles, and eggnog. It is remarkable the space that we create around Christmas, that it is not a single day but rather an entire season and cultural phenomenon.

Schools and workplaces across the country make room for students and employees to observe this holiday, whether their customs are religious, secular, or non-existent. Nobody sends a Zoom meeting request for December 25th or assigns work with a deadline of December 26th. In typical office settings, nobody needs to request time off or burn a PTO day to be able to observe these traditions. I grew up celebrating Christmas and took for granted that this space was carved out for me, without me having to do anything at all.

When I met my now-husband and began to observe Jewish religious holidays, I was frequently struck by how hard we had to work and how much we had to give up to carve out space to observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the two most important holidays in the Jewish calendar. We ask permission to have a day off work, use a precious PTO day, put blocks on our schedule for the day, and set our out-of-office. Inevitably, someone will schedule something important on one of those days. I have had to turn down meetings with important foundation partners, my kids have missed field trips, play auditions, and important exams. And, of course, the same thing happens to Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and all others whose holidays are not widely recognized by society.

My husband takes it in stride. His opinion is that this is just part of being Jewish in America. But I have the indignant entitlement that comes from growing up with the privilege of being in the religious majority and want that to be extended to everyone, not just Christians. And my colleagues agree with me. So, at Student-Ready Strategies, we are intentional about creating equitable policy and culture for our staff, clients, and partners who observe a variety of religious traditions. We do not believe people should need to self-identify, ask special permission to be absent, and miss important moments because of their religion, nor should they need to remind us or educate us about their holidays.

Therefore, as a matter of policy, we are officially closed on the major religious holidays for all major religions that typically require people to be away from work or school. We used the University of Missouri’s religious holiday guide to help us categorize holidays for which we should close. We do not take or schedule meetings, and we place out-of-office messages on our email. We also use the closure as a reminder to educate ourselves about the traditions we do not personally celebrate. We invite those who do celebrate the holiday to share its history and their traditions with us, so we can move forward with greater knowledge and share it with others.

When we think about equity in our postsecondary institutions, religious holidays are an important consideration. College students experience similar challenges when the academic calendar doesn’t make space for their customs. One student affairs professional we spoke to accidentally scheduled a major deadline for student staff without realizing that day intersected with a Jewish holiday. One college Dean we spoke with identified that major exams were scheduled during Ramadan, when Muslim students were fasting. Students’ lived experiences are particularly telling, like the story featured in this article of balancing school, traditions, and fear of discrimination and violence.

Higher education’s typical approach to non-Christian religious holidays is a posture of accommodation. The college will allow the student to miss class and make up exams, but the student has to seek that accommodation, thus self-identifying as a member of a non-centered religion. This practice invites additional bias, whether implicit or explicit, into an already-lopsided power dynamic between professor and student. Further, students who have to make up an exam must find extra time in their already-busy days to do so — finding childcare, alternative work arrangements, or potentially missing other classes. Christian students often do not have to worry about these accommodation requests and making up exams, as their holidays are already protected.

We encourage institutions to create an academic calendar in which the campus is closed on holidays that typically require observers to be absent from class and activities. This is the most equitable approach, because it ensures students do not need to self-identify and self-advocate.

Beyond that, institutions should create policy and structure to ensure religious observances are protected from major events and academic milestones. Institutions can emulate the University of Missouri’s approach to creating clear, pragmatic guidelines and recommended accommodations, even for holidays that do not warrant campus closure. They can put blocks on calendars for all employees (e.g., “Chinese New Year - avoid major exams, deadlines, and events”). They can send email reminders at the beginning of each term and two weeks before each holiday. They can provide professional development to educate employees about the various holidays, why they are important to students who observe them, and the appropriate words of celebration that they should say to their students.

Holidays are wonderful times of renewal, reflection, and connection with loved ones and our histories. Our postsecondary institutions have an opportunity to be leaders in creating equitable policy and structure to ensure students of all faiths and cultures have time, space, and support as they celebrate these important observances.

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