WEST WINDSOR —- Diwali, or the “festival of lights,” is an important holiday for Hindu-Americans — as important as Christmas is to Christians, according to NationalGeographic — but only a handful of New Jersey’s roughly 600 school districts recognize it as a holiday.
Traditionally celebrated over five days in October or November, Diwali symbolizes new beginnings and often involves families buying and wearing new clothes, decorating theirhomes, giving gifts, cooking, praying and visiting temple. Originally celebrated by Hindus, it has become a national festival that is enjoyed by most Indians regardless of faith.
A 2012 survey by the New Jersey School Boards Association found that it is still relatively uncommon for schools to close on Diwali. But this year Diwali, on Oct. 23, is a de facto holiday in the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district and an official holiday in South Brunswick schools.
There are large populations of Asian-Indians in all three towns.
Diwali is a 2014 student day off in the West Windsor-Plainsboro district because the district needs to recess classes that day to allow for teacher training, a spokeswoman said.
Next year Diwali moves to Nov. 11. It was not clear what WW-P school officials will schedule for that date.
In South Brunswick, Diwali has been a school holiday since 2011.
The vast majority of respondents to the School Boards Association survey, 84 percent, said their schools did not close on Diwali. About 2 percent said their schools were considering including the Hindu holiday. The survey showed similar results for the Muslim holiday Ramadan.
Diwali is included on the state Board of Education’s list of approved religious holidays, which entitles students to an excused absence if schools do not cancel classes on those days.
Locally, the West Windsor-Plainsboro district’s 2014-15 calendar lists Oct. 23 as a professional development day. School will be closed for students but it will be a working day for teachers and staff, according to district spokeswoman Gerri Hutner, who said the calendar was approved by the school board in November.
She said it’s not easy to find time for additional holidays in the school calendar, which is tight as it is.
In New Jersey students must attend school 180 days per year, veteran teachers must attend a number of professional development days, and new teachers must attend even more, Hutner said.
“There are only so many days to pick from. We have to take in the needs of staff, students, parents and community leaders,” Hutner said. “To meet all these competing interests, we fashion a calendar that satisfies the instruction period first, then meets other needs.”
According to 2010 U.S. Census figures, 18.8 percent of West Windsor residents identified themselves as Asian-Indian. In Plainsboro, 29.6 percent did.
The South Brunswick school board instituted Diwali as a holiday beginning in the 2010-11 school year, said Madeline Daniels, administrative assistant to the superintendent. Staff is required to work but students have the day off, she said.
“The combination of parents bringing the concern to the school board’s attention and the changing ethnicity in the school population warranted a change in the calendar structure,” Daniels said.
Asians as a broader category made up 35.9 percent of the population of South Brunswick in 2010, according to U.S. Census figures. Asian-Indians accounted for 25.4 percent of that total, data showed.
Elsewhere in New Jersey, parent movements have spurred some school officials to turn Diwali into a holiday. The Passaic district added the holiday in 2005. The effort is ongoing in Millburn.
Rajan Zed, the president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, believes recognizing Diwali would be a good step toward improving diversity initiatives in New Jersey’s schools as well as being accommodating to the state’s growing Indian-American and Hindu population.
Staff writer Nicole Mulvaney contributed to this report.