Religious holidays are for religious practice not academic pressure

Jack Crovitz

Horace Mann’s policy on homework exemptions for religious holidays (or lack thereof) is seriously in need of improvement. It puts extreme pressure on religious students of all backgrounds and betrays our values of openness, equality, and respect.
In essence, the current policy says that students have the sole responsibility to contact all their teachers to avoid being assigned homework or assessments on religious holidays, and that students failing to do so may be penalized for missing work. This policy takes responsibility away from teachers and the administration to avoid assigning homework on religious holidays and puts all the burden on religious students to explain why they require an exemption. In practical terms, this means that hundreds of religious students, from both common and uncommon religious backgrounds, have extra pressure to reach out to each and every one of their teachers before every holiday. Since our school already puts enormous academic pressure on every student, the added stress this policy causes can be very harmful—and it harms members of minority faiths even more since their holidays are less widely known and some teachers may require further explanation.
Another issue is that missing homework or getting an extension can be a major issue in many classes, because it can lead to a student missing class material or falling behind. Thus, encouraging teachers to disregard religious holidays when assigning homework can lead to increased stress and lowered wellbeing for religious students even if they do manage to contact all their teachers. The reality is, many students will simply choose to sacrifice their religious needs rather than fall behind in their classes. The Horace Mann administration should not be forcing students to make that choice.
In addition, some students—especially from less common religious backgrounds—may prefer to keep their religious affiliations less public. Under the current policy, students are forced to describe their religious beliefs to their teachers, no matter whether they want their beliefs to be public or private. Forcing students to explain to their teachers their personal religious beliefs is uncomfortable for all parties involved, and, for a school that likes to think of itself as a liberal, welcoming place, frankly hypocritical.
The school’s student handbook this year says that “Horace Mann School recognizes the diversity of religious traditions represented among the students of the school and the value such diversity adds to the educational program.” In fact, that quote appears four times in the handbook. However, if the administration really “recognizes… the value” of diverse religious traditions, then it should do all it can to ensure that students can practice their faith openly and comfortably. To do this, they must acknowledge the ill effect that our current religious policy can have on observant students and try to correct this error.
There are other potential models for religious homework/assessment exemptions that the school could institute. Perhaps the school could use the NYC public-school calendar of religious holidays—far more extensive than ours. Perhaps students could anonymously request school holidays at the beginning of the year. Perhaps teachers could give a set number of exemptions, to be used on religious holidays—or for other needs, such as mental-health days. Whatever the changes eventually made, the fact is that we need a schoolwide conversation about the topic.