Finally, Lunar New Year Is on the School Calendar

Children will get to celebrate the Lunar New Year without having to miss school. (Photo by Fenix_21, Creative Commons license)

Children will get to celebrate the Lunar New Year without having to miss school. (Photo by Fenix_21, Creative Commons license)

On the next Lunar New Year’s Day, Asian students in public schools won’t have to struggle between going to school and staying at home to celebrate the holiday with their families any more. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on June 22 via his Twitter account that the Lunar New Year will be marked as a public holiday on the school calendar, effective immediately.

The Asian community is thrilled by the news. Many people consider this as a victory achieved by the longtime persistent efforts of the community and its elected officials, and the lessons they learned can be guidance for future advocacy.

The mayor tweeted in English, Chinese and Korean yesterday afternoon:

[Editor’s note: On June 23, the mayor was joined by Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña to make the formal announcement that New York City will become the second major urban school district in the nation, after San Francisco, to close on Lunar New Year in the official school calendar. “The addition of Lunar New Year to the public school calendar champions our continued commitment to respecting and honoring the extraordinary diversity of our students,” said Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. “This new addition is also a welcome teachable moment in the classroom for our students to learn about the contributions of various cultures.”]  

So concluded the multiyear effort of the Asian community, as well as the fierce wrestling it has engaged in with the mayor in the recent months – with a complete victory for the community.

“This is justice that comes late,” said Eric Ng, president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. He said the mayor had promised to make the Lunar New Year a school holiday during his campaign. But he didn’t fulfill his commitment until he was pressured by elected officials. But now finally he answered the call of Asian voters.

“This is a big win for the community,” said Eddie Chiu, counselor of the Lin Sing Association. Chiu said during the 2013 mayoral election that many Asian voters supported former Comptroller John Liu, one of the current mayor’s opponents. This may be the reason the mayor doesn’t seem to always respond to requests from the Asian community.

But the persistence of the community finally won out.

Many community leaders gave high remarks to the elected officials who have been pushing the mayor to realize his promise, especially the non-Asian but very dogged state Sen. Daniel Squadron. “He has the community’s interests at heart. He deserves the credit,” said Chiu.

Squadron, in a written statement, attributes the favorable result to the work of his colleagues. “The mayor’s pledge and today’s addition of Lunar New Year to the school calendar send a strong and meaningful message that as the city changes, the school calendar must change with it,” the statement says. Council member Margaret Chin said in a statement: “This designation gives Lunar New Year the respect and recognition it has long deserved.”

Indeed, the announcement came as a surprise to many people in the community. Before this, the dialogue between the community and the mayor on this topic seemed to have been getting more and more heated. The mayor’s announcement in March that he would add two Muslim holidays to the school calendar caused an outcry in the community. With the Lunar New Year left out, people in the Asian community felt shortchanged.

Elected officials representing districts with large concentrations of Asian residents sent joint letters to the mayor and held several meetings with the his representatives, hoping to persuade him to add the Lunar New Year to the calendar for the upcoming school year. But the mayor’s side kept brushing off the requests by saying the school calendar had already been printed and it was not likely to be revised until next year.

As a last resort, elected officials turned to the legislative machine in Albany. On June 9, the State Senate passed a bill proposed by state Sens. Squadron and Martin Golden that would mandate the city to list the Lunar New Year as a school holiday. A matching bill proposed by Assemblyman Ron Kim was expected to pass the Assembly soon. And this bill seems to have played a critical role in the mayor’s change of mind.

Kim said last Tuesday that he got a call from the mayor himself, who asked him to stop pushing for the passage of the bill because it would set an awkward precedent of the state forcing an education policy on the city. “The mayor said: ‘I am willing to do it. But I want to do it the right way,'” said Kim. The next day, Kim’s office got a written commitment from the mayor’s office, which was affirmed by the Twitter announcement.

“This is what we want. We want the mayor to make the decision by himself. That’s why we passed the law last year to recommend the mayor to consider making the Lunar New Year a school holiday. Now we’ve got what we want. So the new legislation is no longer necessary,” said Kim.

Practically, to have a day off on the Lunar New Year could bring some inconvenience even to the parents who like to celebrate the holiday with their children. Claire Chin, whose daughter is in kindergarten, said both she and her husband work full time. If school is closed on the Lunar New Year, they have to find a babysitter for their child on that day.

Teresa Hsu, executive director of Asian American Communications, an education organization, was one of the first advocates in the community who fought for a school policy change on the Lunar New Year. Some years back, when Joel Klein was schools chancellor, Stuyvesant High School outraged the Asian community by arranging an exam on the Lunar New Year’s Day (a majority of the school’s students are Asian). Hsu and others fought back and got the city to allow Asian students to take the day off without affecting their attendance record.

As for the new policy, Hsu said: “Of course it is good news. And it is a big win of the community. I just cannot imagine how the city will deal with other communities who demand the same for their holidays. The number of school days per school year is required by law.” [Editor’s note: The city’s announcement said that “New York City schools will maintain the same number of State-reimbursable instructional days as part of this change to the calendar.”]

Still, many people in the community think the victory does not only offer kids one more day off, but also shows how the Asian community can work together for its common interests. Peter Tu, head of the Flushing Chinese Business Association, said it is a tradition for New York’s mayor to come to the Flushing Lunar New Year parade. The parade has been growing year by year. Also, a few years ago, the parade started to accept applications from non-Asian groups in order to show the Lunar New Year is not only celebrated by Asians. He believes all of these helped the mayor to realize the value of this Asian holiday. A united Asian community is also what makes non-Asian elected officials willing to offer a hand. “Help yourself, then others will help you,” said Tu.

Kim said it’s been five years since Rep. Grace Meng proposed legislation to list the Lunar New Year as a public holiday when she was an Assembly member. And it also took the painstaking effort of many elected officials. “Everyone worked so hard. Sen. Squadron recruited Sen. Golden to propose the bill. Council members Margaret Chin and Peter Koo yelled at the mayor’s people during the meetings,” said Kim. “The lessons the community should learn from this is that sometimes a final victory takes a long time to get. And teamwork is the most important thing in the process.”

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