High school students (stock image)
High school students (stock image) iStock

The holiest day of the Jewish calendar couldn’t come at a worse time for Michigan public schools this year.

Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) falls on Oct. 5 — which is also the state’s “student count day,” the one day a year when the number of students who attend school determines how much that district will receive in state funds the following year.

By Michigan law, count day is on the first Wednesday of October, and superintendents typically go to great lengths to entice students to attend. Districts have coaxed students to attend on the days using raffles, basketball tickets and zoo trips. This helps them ensure at least $9,150 in state funding per student, according to Chalkbeat Detroit.

Some public school districts in the state that enroll many Jewish students close their schools for Yom Kippur, allowing them to apply for waivers to move their count days; five districts have done so this year. But other districts with significant numbers of Jews are staying open, meaning that their student tallies could be depressed on the day that counts for state aid.

The superintendent of one district that is holding classes Oct. 5, Jeanice Swift of Ann Arbor Public Schools, told Chalkbeat that she wants to be able to move her district’s count day to the next day. She said the district does not schedule major exams, tests, sports or other events for Yom Kippur, on the advice of a group of community faith leaders.

But Michigan’s assistant superintendent, Kyle Guerrant, said Michigan law doesn’t allow for schools in session on count day to apply for waivers.

“This is a very important day to the Jewish community and having this overlap with count day feels disrespectful,” Guerrant told Chalkbeat. “We understand and appreciate those concerns but we’re in a bind in the sense that we don’t have the ability to provide a waiver because of the way the law is structured right now.”

There could be a fix: The Detroit Jewish News reports that the Michigan State Department of Education is allowing students with “excused” absences on count day to “return and attend all scheduled classes” within 30 calendar days in order to be counted in the school’s population.

Michigan is home to an estimated 87,900 Jews, according to studies by demographers Ira Sheskin and Arnold Dashefsky. The majority of those Jews, around 70,000, live in the Detroit suburbs, according to a population study conducted by the local Jewish federation in 2018. Although there are some private Jewish schools in the state, many Jewish students attend public school.

Public schools nationally have long struggled to navigate the Jewish High Holidays while also welcoming back students for the fall. Last year, Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) fell on the evening of Labor Day, causing some districts across the country to change their first day of school. Other district have added Jewish holidays to their calendars on a permanent basis to satisfy Jewish families and avoid complications that arise when many students and teachers are absent.