Whether or not a child is excused for religious reasons, students are highly incentivized to show up to school that day.

Michigan Count Day falling on Oct. 5 — Yom Kippur — has become a point of contention this year for some in the Jewish community. While some view the timing of the holiest day on the Jewish calendar falling on the day when school administrators encourage perfect attendance to leverage maximum per-pupil funding as nothing more than a bureaucratic oversight, others see it as insensitive in an age when society continues to stress representation and inclusion.

Count Day, part of the Michigan School Aid Act of 1979, is when all public schools in Michigan tally the number of students attending their schools. This information translates into state funding. The state’s K-12 budget for Fiscal Year (FY) 2022-23 is the largest education budget in Michigan history, with a historic investment of $9,150 per student.
Districts with significant Jewish student and faculty percentages filed for an advance waiver with the state and moved Count Day to Oct. 7. They include Bloomfield Hills Schools, West Bloomfield, Walled Lake and Berkeley public schools. Additionally, a second Count Day is slated for Feb. 8, 2023.

But not showing up on Oct. 5 does not penalize the student or their school district from receiving this funding.

Department of Education Statement

On Aug. 25, the Michigan State Department of Education released a memo to the state’s school district superintendents and public-school academy directors that stated:
“This year’s fall pupil membership count day coincides with a religious holiday that may affect the ability for some students to be in attendance. To be counted in the district’s membership, if a student is absent on Count Day and that absence is excused, the pupil has 30 calendar days to return and attend all scheduled classes. Similarly, to be counted in the district’s membership, if a student is absent and that absence is unexcused on Count Day, the student has 10 school days to return and attend all scheduled classes. For a district that is not in session on Count Day due to conditions not within the control of school authorities, such as the date on which the religious holiday Yom Kippur falls this year, with the approval of the state superintendent, the immediately following day on which the district is in session will become the count day.”

It continued: “A district may request an alternate Count Day using the appropriate application form, per state law, and approval will be granted provided the application satisfies the requirements for an alternate Count Day in law.”

Government Voices

This memo acknowledging the religious conflicts that Count Day may be causing for Michigan’s Jewish community is in part due to efforts of State Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) and his colleague State Rep. Samantha Steckloff (D-Farmington Hills), two of only three Jewish members of the Michigan State Legislature.

While Moss commended the Michigan DOE’s statement, he said there is a long way to go for the state to recognize the needs of its religious minorities.

State Sen. Jeremy Moss
State Sen. Jeremy Moss

“As members of the Jewish community, you realize when people schedule things or require things of you over our religious holidays, it’s always on us to find a way to navigate around it,” Moss said. “In this specific example, the date (of the first Wednesday in October) is enshrined into law. We worked with the Department of Education to seek some remedies.

“I am the only Jewish person in the State Senate,” he added, “and I speak on behalf of my community alone. I am working to get my colleagues to better understand the cultural sensitivity on items like this, but it has been incredibly difficult. For this year, I think we found a good solution. Going forward, we will have to figure it out for future years, whether that means changing the language of the law or moving Count Day to another time of the year.”

Noah Arbit
Noah Arbit

Noah Arbit of West Bloomfield, who is running for State House representative in the new 20th House District, said as someone who, if elected, would represent municipalities with the largest Jewish population in the state, this issue deserves attention. Arbit said that closing the school and moving Count Day a few days after Yom Kippur would lessen the “administrative headache” of an excess of excused absences.

“It would not be a heavy lift to change the language in the law to say that if Count Day occurred on Yom Kippur, that the day could be moved up two days on the school calendar to allow for Jews to observe their holiest holiday and allow travel time for those going out of town to be with family,” Arbit said. “Our district has a diverse population where all should be respected and represented. This should be an item for discussion at the state legislative level next year.”

Incentivizing Count Day

Whether or not a child is excused for religious reasons, students are highly incentivized to show up to school that day. Children in attendance are often treated to prizes, pizza parties or other sweet goodies, or even tickets to Detroit Pistons games. Parents say teachers and faculty promote the importance of attending that day weeks ahead of time. Some feel that even though a Jewish student will receive an excused absence for missing school on Yom Kippur, that does not soften the sting of feeling left out.

Sharon Krosner
Sharon Krosner

Sharon Krasner is an academic dean of a public charter high school in Detroit and has been an educator for 24 years, mainly in Detroit and Pontiac public schools. As a veteran educator who has taught in schools that do not give time off for the Jewish holidays, Krasner said her administrators have been mostly very accommodating in her taking off for Jewish holidays.

While Krasner said Jewish kids in districts that do not close for the Jewish holidays may be missing out on Count Day perks, she said the day is essential in the Detroit Public School District where consistent attendance is an issue.

“While I understand the perspective that some may have for standing up for our rights of religious observance, there are districts such as mine where encouraging consistent attendance is an important issue because we may not even see some children even in those 10 days following Count Day,” said Krasner, who attends Ohr Chadash Synagogue in Oak Park. “If a family observes Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, that family may also make choices about where they’re going to live or send their kids to school.”

For privacy reasons, a mother who gave the identity of Pamela Daniel said she has two children who attend Avondale School in Troy, where schools are not closed for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.

Daniel is going to get her children an excused absence for the holiday. Even so, she said she knows teachers and administrators will be making announcements to be in school in advance of Count Day. Incentivizing the day with special perks may cause Jewish children in districts that stay open on Yom Kippur to feel marginalized, she added.

“Missing out on that day is just another opportunity for Jewish kids to feel ‘othered’ and left out,” Daniel said. “It can really cause even more conflict for families who want their kids to attend or participate in services. Kids don’t look at Yom Kippur as a fun holiday, like Purim, so even in a typical year, our children are not excited to miss school to go to synagogue, knowing they’ll have to make up work waiting for them, and then on top of that, they are missing out on parties or other fun events planned for Count Day. That just adds salt to the wound and causes more conflicted feelings for our younger children.”

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Stacy Gittleman is an award-winning journalist and has been a contributing writer for the Detroit Jewish News for the last five years. Prior to moving to Metro Detroit in 2013, she was a columnist and feature writer for Gannett's Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester, NY. She also manages social media pages for other local non-profit organizations including the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit. Contact her with breaking news and feature story ideas that impact Detroit's Jewish community at stacy.gittleman@yahoo.com