Dubious precedence for presidents

March 02, 1996|By Michael K. Burns

WITH ALL the snow days this winter, it's beginning to look as if children won't be out of school before Independence Day. Independence Day? Would that be important enough to qualify as an official holiday if it fell within the Baltimore County public-schools calendar?

The question arises because of the cancellation of Presidents' Day holiday this year and in recent years past. And because of the suggestion to eliminate Memorial Day this May, as well. All in the cause of making up school days lost to snow closings. So far, Baltimore County has closed schools 10 days this season.

Nature's whim is not to be challenged, even if some of the calls by school-transportation forecasters may be. The required days of schooling still have to be made up.

But an unfortunate lesson is being taught as a result: that certain national holidays are not worth observing, that they are unimportant, that they merit only a morning announcement in homeroom.

County schools opened earlier than usual this year, on August 28. But the early start, oblivious to the cruelty of Maryland summers, was not to build up days for winter cancellations, but ** to incorporate two Jewish fall religious holidays into the official school calendar.

When winter weather's impact on the school calendar became clear in early January, the system could have canceled a scheduled holiday to help make up days -- but it didn't even consider it. Martin Luther King Day was observed without debate, and four weeks later the county again canceled Presidents' Day.

The message was not lost on parents or children. The school system is scrupulous in observing King's birthday, with its symbolism for one ethnic group, while finding exigencies to discard the holiday for birthdays of Washington and Lincoln. Columbus Day, long a heritage day of the Italian-American community as well as the American nation, is not considered worthy of a county school holiday. Nor is Veterans' Day.

One more makeup day

Years ago, Washington and Lincoln had separate birthday holidays; their joint observance was conceded as pragmatic compression. Now Baltimore County schools relegate that commemoration to just one more makeup day for work missed during weather cancellations.

If the week were spent trying to explain the importance of these two men in creating the American nation, it might be a positive step. From the overwhelming evidence, however, there's little more than fleeting reference to their place in history at most schools during that week.

While some adults may choose to ignore the purpose of national holidays, using them solely for rest or recreation or shopping expeditions, it is the mission of our schools to teach children that these observances have national significance in our unifying American culture and history. The holidays are not that numerous.

These national holidays need to be observed by our schools, and not only when they fall in a convenient spot on the calendar. It is even more incumbent on a school system that professes the importance of diversity to stress holidays of national unity. They reflect our nation's heritage, to be honored by our education system.

With ample causes of separation, we must not lose the bonds of our common national history.

The need for a school break at year-end and in the spring is understandable. But these vacations are flexible; so are in-service days for teachers and half-days the final week. National holidays are not. Their observance by schools teaches children what is important across these United States, our unifying web of celebration. Not just freedom from snow.

Michael K. Burns writes editorials for The Sun.

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