Tentative school exam schedule at issue as Edmonton public trustees consider more inclusive religious holidays

The 2023-24 school year for Edmonton Public Schools will not include more time off for religious holidays unless the province adjusts the tentative exam schedule. 

The school calendar was approved Tuesday, but only after multiple amendments were voted down. 

The amendments aligned with the board’s goal of making the school calendar more inclusive of religious days of significance.

Seven holidays were requested by the public, and the school division hopes to include five additional holidays in the future. Two celebrations under consideration, Diwali/Bandi Chhor Divas and the Lunar New Year, fall on weekends that year.

Superintendent Darrel Robertson said he has sent a letter to the education ministry about two other dates that fall inside the province’s draft of 2023-24 exam schedule. 

Eid al-Fitr  is on April 10 during provincial achievement examinations and Eid al-Adha is on June 17, during diploma exams.

“I received a letter back from the ministry … they will take our feedback into consideration as they finalize the diploma exam schedule,” Robertson said.

He said the community of Brooks has also asked the province about those dates. The finalized exam schedule is expected in the fall and the board could adjust its calendar slightly to include days off for Eid based on the decision from the province.

The board also discussed making Sept. 25, 2023, a day off to mark the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur.

Trustees had discussed making it a non-instructional day rather than a professional development day as scheduled, which would allow both staff and students to celebrate. Trustees opted to leave the date as a professional development day. 

Board chair Trisha Estabrooks said the Alberta School Boards Association is watching closely as discussions around inclusive school holidays unfold.

Board chair Trisha Estabrooks said students sent handwritten letters to her and the board in support of the inclusive calendar. (Zoom/CBC)

“Let’s hope that this decision today contributes to some momentum,” Estabrooks said. 

“Trustees across the province are aware that these are some of the steps we are taking and they’re interested in what we’re doing.”

In 2020, the board determined it had to cut five instructional days from its calendar for budget reasons, inspiring some to advocate that some dates with religious significance be marked as holidays.

Five additional days off were worked into the 2021-22 school year but they were not aligned with significant dates. 

In a recent division-wide survey, more than 75 per cent of students said the additional days off this year were good for them. Nearly 55 per cent of staff said they liked the days off while just 38 per cent of family respondents liked the days. 

About 35 to 40 per cent of family respondents cited professional impacts or difficulties with child care as a negative aspect of the additional time off.

The 178 instructional days on the school calendar require the balancing of a number of factors including provincial and federal employment legislation, Alberta Education requirements, the board’s policies and regulations, and collective agreements with staff.

While feedback was generally supportive of time off for dates of significance, there was not a lot of support for days off mid-week. There was also not a lot of support from families for students returning to school before September. 

The division has created a multi-faith calendar, which was put into use this school year and is continuing to be developed.

In addition, the Education Act allows for parents to excuse their children from school for religious reasons without academic penalty.

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