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BY ZACH WILLIAMS | If state legislators and other elected officials representing Lower Manhattan have their way, Chinese New Year will be a public school holiday next year.
In a Jan. 20 letter, NYS Assembly member Grace Meng and NYS Senator Daniel Squadron urged Mayor Michael Bloomberg to establish the holiday in order to recognize the growing role of the Asian-American community in the city. Local school officials expressed support by saying such recognition is due considering the historically low attendance levels on the holiday and the impact that has on state funding to their schools.
“About 14 percent of school children in the NYC public school system are Asian American,” states the letter. “Our City prides itself on its multiculturalism — and designating the Lunar New Year as a school holiday would be an important gesture to Asian Americans that their customs and contributions to our City are appreciated.”
On Tuesday, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer echoed the sentiment in a statement saying, “I’m with Sen. Squadron and Assembly member Meng. Make Lunar New Year a NYC school holiday. Asian-Americans play a huge role in NYC; let’s honor their celebration.”
Lunar New Year is celebrated by cultures across East Asia including China, Korea and Vietnam.
Attendance at schools in Lower Manhattan dropped considerably Monday, as Asian American children took absences in order to observe the holiday with their families. About 80 percent of students at P.S. 130 did not come to school Monday, according to Principal Lily Woo.
“We usually have one of the highest attendance rates in the city excluding that one day,” said Woo. “We generally fall above 98 percent but because we are located in Chinatown and because we have such a high number of Chinese students, our attendance that day fell to 200 students.”
New York City Council member Margaret Chin also acknowledged the fact that many students already take the day as an excused absence.
“I think it is a wonderful initiative and I am very supportive,” said Chin. “This week we celebrated the first day of Lunar New Year and anyone who was there can tell you the streets were full of children and families from all over Manhattan.”
2012 is the Year of the Dragon, considered one of the most auspicious and prosperous Chinese Zodiac symbols.
“This year is the Year of the Dragon, which is a time to do big things. It is a perfect time to pass this legislation,” noted Chin.
The letter urged Bloomberg to declare the holiday while bills sponsored by Meng and Squadron addressing the issue attempt to gain traction in the state legislature. According to Amy Spitalnick, a spokesperson for Squadron, Bloomberg has not yet replied to the letter.
A request for comment on the issue to Bloomberg’s office resulted in a response from Marge Feinberg, a spokesperson for the city department of education.
“With so many religions practiced throughout our city, we have to weigh additional school closings with the need to give our students as much time in the classroom as possible,” said Feinberg in an email. She did not respond to further requests for comment.
Should the effort be successful, New York City would join San Francisco as one of the few U.S. cities to recognize the holiday.
Gentle Blythe, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Unified School District, said the adoption of the holiday there resulted in a higher “average daily attendance” for the district which ultimately led to more state funding.
“It actually created a cost savings for the district,” said Blythe of the Lunar New Year holiday.
Currently, students in New York City who wish to celebrate the holiday with their families must take an excused absence and miss class that may affect their academic records, according to local school officials. Though the excused absences are granted for “religious observances,” the holiday is not particularly religious but rather a time for families to join together, according to academics.
University of California at Berkeley Professor David Johnson, an expert in Chinese culture, said in an email that historically there have been some religious elements within holiday celebrations; they “have been radically weakened over the past several generations… and in the U.S. they do not exist in any significant way. I think in the end Chinese New Year does not qualify as a religious holiday in the ordinary meaning of the term.”
Whether the holiday is religious or not should not determine whether the holiday is adopted in New York City, according to UC Berkeley Chinese Professor Paula Varsano who added that comparing Lunar New Year to Christmas puts the issue into perspective.
“It is doubtful that anyone would decide that Christmas should not continue to be a public school holiday,” she said in an email.
— with reporting by John Bayles