For Angelina Xu, one of the best holidays of the year is like Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one. It brings the chance to see far-flung relatives and friends, to laugh and tell stories around the dinner table, to revel in plates and plates of Chinese food.
But schools don’t close for Lunar New Year in her Maryland school system, so the 12-year-old said she and others are forced to choose between their classes and their culture — an “impossible decision.”
“It’s important to me to be off because it’s the best chance I get to relate to my family in China, and to connect more with my parents and my brother, and to learn more about my culture,” said Xu, who attends Roberto Clemente Middle School in Germantown.
The rising seventh-grader is part of a growing call for recognition of Lunar New Year in Montgomery County, a sprawling school district outside Washington that ranks as the largest in the state — and one of the largest in the nation — with more than 161,000 students.
Some see the effort as a sign of growing activism among Asian American families at a time when their children account for more than 14 percent of districtwide enrollment and they have become increasingly vocal on education issues.
Lunar New Year became a focal point in the spring as the district urged students, parents and staff across the system to weigh in on holidays and other occasions. The district created a survey that asked about school attendance and the importance of being off on a range of dates: Columbus Day, Passover, the Hindu holiday of Diwali, Orthodox Easter, spring break.
Strikingly, an estimated 40,000 responses poured in. Results will be released at a July 19 school board committee meeting.
Supporters of Lunar New Year seized the chance to bring attention to the occasion. In May and June, they appeared before the school board, talking about their traditions and deep connection to Lunar New Year, and asking that students be given the day off to celebrate.
“Practicing tradition helps us remember our roots,” Benjamin Lee, a rising ninth-grader, told the school board.
Supporters point out that Asian students account for more than 30 percent of the student body at some schools. Many also point out that Montgomery gives students the day off on certain Christian, Jewish and Muslim holidays.
“If you’re going to respect one culture, you must respect all,” Evelyn Shue, a rising eighth-grader at Eastern Middle School, said, noting the school system prides itself on diversity.
State law requires schools be closed for some holidays and occasions, including Christmas and Good Friday, while others, including Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are a matter of local decision-making.
In Montgomery County, students have been out of school on certain Jewish holidays since the 1970s, when officials say they found that high levels of student and staff absences affected district operations.
More recently, Muslim community leaders lobbied for a day off on an Islamic holy day, and in 2015 the school board voted to coincide a professional day with Eid al-Adha.
Hindu leaders in Montgomery have pushed for a school closing on the Diwali holiday, which has not yet been done, and Lunar New Year picked up momentum in the spring.
Montgomery is not the first school system to consider Lunar New Year. The nation’s largest school system, in New York, has given students a day off in recent years. In Maryland, Howard County has scheduled a professional day to coincide with Lunar New Year.
But adding the holiday to Montgomery’s calendar will not be easy. Recent changes in state law have left Montgomery with fewer options for days off during the school year, said school board member Patricia O’Neill.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) signed an executive order in 2016 mandating that classes not begin until after Labor Day and end by June 15. The change extended summer but squeezed out days off during the academic year, she said.
“We have way more days that people would like us to be closed than we have available days in the calendar,” O’Neill said. For the 2018-2019 school year, she noted, spring break was cut back by two days. “There’s very little flexibility,” she said.
Asian community leaders said recognizing Lunar New Year with a day off could enhance student understanding and education.
Montgomery County had a spate of hate-based acts last year, and many happened in schools, said Hoan Dang, a longtime board member of the Association of Vietnamese Americans, based in Silver Spring.
“Hatred, bigotry, racism — a lot of that comes out of ignorance,” he said. “Lunar New Year should be a part of the cultural education of our students.”
Julie Yang, a leader in the Lunar New Year effort and past president of the Chinese American Parents Association of Montgomery County, said the efforts of recent months follow years of families making do, typically sending their children to school despite the holiday.
“People just feel obligated to go to school when the doors are open,” she said.
Yang suggested that a teacher professional day be moved to coincide with Lunar New Year. “I know we are very restricted in our school calendar,” she said. “It may take some creativity, but I think it could be done.”
She also cited data showing nearly three-quarters of Asian Americans in Montgomery County are foreign-born and said people are deeply tied to their cultural heritage and can feel isolated in American culture. Recognition of the holiday, she said, helps build a bridge.
Yang’s daughter, Isabella, a rising 12th-grader at Winston Churchill High School, described the “identity war” she felt as she grew older — a child of immigrant parents trying to fit in as a typical teenager and be “as American as possible.”
Recognizing Lunar New Year, Isabella Yang said, is one step toward ending the dissonance she and others feel. “It shows that your culture can also be part of American society,” she said.