Rachel Wang, a rising eighth-grader at Cabin John Middle School, advocates for time off for students on Lunar New Year. Credit: VIA MONTGOMERY COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS

A group of students and parents in Montgomery County – home to more than 40 percent of the state’s Asian-American population—say it’s high time the school system acknowledged Lunar New Year, one of their culture’s most significant holidays.

The push comes as Montgomery County Public Schools officials are trying to learn more about which holidays are most important to families across the system. This spring, MCPS surveyed parents, staff and students about the holidays they observe, and education officials intend to use the data when planning future academic calendars.

For years, schools have been closed on the Jewish holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, and the next calendar aligns a teacher planning and grading day with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr so students don’t have to come to class.

On Monday, several Asian-American students asked school board members to do something similar for Lunar New Year.

“Students now don’t fully enjoy Lunar New Year anymore because instead of staying home and spending time with family, we have to go to school,” Alexander Wei, a sixth-grader from Herbert Hoover Middle School in Potomac, told the board during its meeting. “Americans can’t imagine going to school on Thanksgiving and coming home to eat turkey, then doing homework after.”

More than 14 percent of the MCPS student population is Asian-American, and speakers this week said holding classes on Lunar New Year forces many of these young people to choose between academics and culture.

The Lunar New Year is celebrated in Asian countries including China, South Korea and Vietnam, with the date falling in January or February depending on when the new moon appears. One holiday tradition is to clean the house to rid it of bad spirits. Another is to reconnect with family members over a huge feast and exchange red envelopes filled with money.

Ting Mei Chau of the Asian Pacific American Students Achievement Group began her Monday meeting testimony by passing out red envelopes to school board members.

“Ms. Chau, the word for ‘bribery’ in Chinese …,” board President Michael Durso quipped.

“Until it’s proven, I’m still innocent,” she replied, before assuring the viewing public that the envelopes contained thank-you notes and fortune cookies rather than cash.

Nine-year-old Andrew Huang said many  families are separated when they immigrate to the United States and rarely get a chance to catch up. Lunar New Year affords them that rare opportunity, he said.

MCPS launched its survey earlier this year to guide future calendar planning. The school system long ago began closing schools on Jewish holidays after determining that a large number of students and employees would otherwise be absent.

However, the data to support this decision is dated, and in a diverse county where a plethora of holidays and observances are celebrated, school officials concluded they needed updated information. The survey asked about a long list of significant days, including Columbus Day, Diwali, Eid al-Adha, Eid al-Fitr, Lunar New Year, Passover, Orthodox Easter and Yom Kippur.

Julie Yang, president of the Chinese American Parents Association of Montgomery County, said members of her group leapt at the chance to push for school closures on Lunar New Year and wanted to bolster their survey responses by testifying in person at a school board meeting. She asked the board members Monday to take the same approach with Lunar New Year and Eid al-Fitr by scheduling professional days on both dates. 

Howard County Public Schools in 2016 offered students a day off on the eve of Lunar New Year, and Yang said she hopes Montgomery County will also make allowances for the holiday.

School board members in coming weeks will begin discussing the academic calendar for 2019-2020.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.