Asian American students at Montclair High School have asked the Montclair Board of Education to make Lunar New Year a districtwide holiday, sharing a petition signed by hundreds of students and community members.

On Tuesday, Jan. 18, the Montclair High School Asian Student Union started a petition asking for the community to support its request to the Board of Education — no school on Lunar New Year, the Chinese holiday marking the beginning of each new year. This year, the holiday falls on Tuesday, Feb. 1.

“Lunar New Year is just as important as other major holidays that we have off for in Montclair Public Schools,” Asian Student Union executive officer Serena Lee, a junior, wrote in the petition description, presented to the board at its Wednesday, Jan. 19, meeting. “Every year when my fellow Asian American students and I go to school, we skip celebrating one of the most important holidays to us with our families.”

As of the start of this week, the petition had more than 650 signatures. 

While Asian students are a minority in the Montclair school district, they still deserve to celebrate holidays with their families, Asian Student Union President and MHS senior Leon Wang said at the board meeting. Asian and Pacific Islander students make up about 5% of the district’s student population, according to a 2020-2021 enrollment report on the district’s website

Jewish students have off school for Yom Kippur, Muslim students have off for Eid al-Fitr and Christian students have off for Good Friday, Wang said. Eid-al-Fitr became a districtwide holiday in June after 11-year-old Laila Khan and her father, Saiful Khan, collected 1,000 petition signatures and brought the matter to the board.   

“Lunar New Year only comes once a year, and it's the biggest holiday in Chinese culture,” Wang said. “In solidarity with the growing AAPI Montclair community, it would mean a lot for the district to support AAPI students by providing them with a day off.”

Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds thanked the students, telling them, “I hear you.” He said he’d see if he could do anything about their request. And in a community message sent Jan. 21, he said he'd be asking the school board to pass a resolution adding Lunar New Year to the calendar. Additionally, he wrote in the message, the district would mark this year's Lunar New Year at the Montclair Art Museum on Feb. 12, when AAPI Montclair and the museum will hold a celebration. 

"This is a great time for our community to come together to share in the customs and history of our Asian families," he wrote.

The Montclair Board of Education approved the 2022-2023 district calendar in July but can make amendments to the calendar if the board votes to do so. 

Attending school on Lunar New Year has meant missing out on family time in order to not miss classwork, Wang said at the Board of Education meeting. Wang is also senior class president. 

In past years, Wang’s grandparents have traveled from China to Montclair for the holiday, but he has spent the entire day at school, he said.  

“I never felt like my culture as a Chinese American was taken seriously,” he said. 

To celebrate Lunar New Year, Lee said, she wants to spend the day with loved ones, visiting relatives, celebrating traditions and remembering ancestors. 

“Every year when my fellow Asian American students and I go to school, we skip celebrating one of the most important holidays with our families and feel invisible, as there's little to no acknowledgment in school,” Lee said at the meeting.

Asian Student Union executive officer and MHS junior Arielle Chan said making Lunar New Year a districtwide holiday would mean a lot to her and many other students, allowing them to celebrate without fear of missed assignments. 

“It's always a challenge for me to celebrate with my family,” Chan said at the meeting.

Board member Allison Silverstein said at the meeting that she appreciated the student advocacy and was interested to see the feasibility of adding the holiday to the district calendar.

“If it's a possibility, of course, you know, we want to be supportive and inclusive,” Silverstein said. “But I also understand logistics and all of the obligations we have.”

Lunar New Year would be “a great addition” to the district calendar, board member Kathryn Weller-Demming said. She said it would be too late to add it to the 2021-2022 calendar, but she hoped it could be added to the following year’s. 

“It benefits all of our students when the Montclair Public Schools reflect the real world,” Weller-Demming said. “Our diversity, our inclusion and our equity all come from valuing each other as community members.”

Board Vice President Priscilla Church said she supported students celebrating Lunar New Year, whether that means a districtwide holiday or excused absences for students who celebrate. She also advocated for in-school education around the holiday so all students could learn about the Chinese culture and customs involved in its celebration. 

“Giving the day off doesn't necessarily help the greater community learn about the richness of the culture,” Church said at the meeting. “We should bring these holidays into the schools.” 

On Feb. 12, AAPI Montclair and the Montclair Art Museum will host AAPI Montclair’s first Lunar New Year celebration outdoors at the Montclair Art Museum, from noon to 3 p.m.