Durham, Chapel Hill-Carrboro school leaders take heat over hurricane decisions

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A day after a rough reopening of schools in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, more complaints have rolled in for Durham Public Schools and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.

A letter was sent to DPS Superintendent Pascal Mubenga and the school board sharply criticizing the decision to have school Monday.

The decision by CHCCS to have school Wednesday, which is Yom Kippur, prompted letters from religious leaders and a Carrboro alderwoman.

Having school in Chapel Hill and Carrboro on Jewish holidays has been debated through the years. Wednesday was scheduled to be a teacher work day, but it also was the first designated make-up day on the CHCCS calendar.

“We ask for more thoughtful and sensitive practices related to school scheduling on the Jewish High Holy Days, and request that you move the inclement weather day currently scheduled for the 19th,” said the letter signed by 14 clergy members in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is a day of prayer, fasting and repentance in the Jewish faith. The holiday begins at sundown Tuesday and concludes at sundown Wednesday.

The letter suggested Jewish students, teachers and staff would have to choose between going to school or observing their faith and traditions. It also said the school board had other options.

Carrboro Alderwoman Randee Haven-O’Donnell, who has taught in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools, also sent the board a pointed letter, calling the decision “unconscionable.”

“Would Christmas Day or Easter ever be considered? Certainly not,” she wrote. “That is the magnitude of significance Yom Kippur has to the Jewish community. Designating Yom Kippur as a go-to make-up day erodes the sincerity and authenticity of the district’s shared respect and recognition of the holiday’s significance.”

CHCCS, which has 10 inclement weather days and four waiver days built into its calendar, was closed for three days. School districts can choose to not make up days if they have more than the state-required minimum of 1,025 hours of annual student instruction by using waiver days. But districts often like to hold off on using that option to see how many snow days they have first.

“As a school district, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, is proud of the diversity in our community, and values cultural and religious holidays important to our community members,” CHCCS Board Chairwoman Rani Dasi said in a statement Tuesday.

“The decisions of our district are always made with the best interest of student learning and academic progress in mind,” she continued. “We regret the impact that use of these makeup days will have on our students, families, and staff. In previous years the district has planned calendars based on community input and we will continue to do so going forward.”

Students who miss school Wednesday for religious reasons will be credited with an excused absence as allowed by board policy, according to Dasi. Students who miss school for religious reasons or other excused absences will also get to make up missed assignments or tests.

Wake County Public Schools System maintained its teacher workday for Wednesday. Wake historically has tried to include a day off for traditional-calendar students on either Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish new year, or Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

Too much rain in Durham

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In Durham, the decision to have school Monday was criticized by the Rev. Curtis E. Gatewood, a former Durham NAACP leader who called for an independent community committee to investigate that and other “matter-of-life-or-death decisions.”

Heavy rains Monday morning caused flash flooding in Durham. A tornado watch also was issued for the area.

“Our administration hasn’t had the opportunity to discuss Rev. Gatewood‘s email in detail,” DPS spokesman Chip Sudderth said Tuesday afternoon. “However, we began a thorough review of our response to Monday’s weather, and will present a report to our board and community on Thursday.”

At least two incidents may have been related to the weather.

A DPS school bus became stuck after trying to turn around to avoid a flooded area on Pickett Road.

Githens Middle School lost water pressure at about 1 p.m., Sudderth said. It was related to an offsite waterline failure, which was fixed later in the day by city maintenance. Githens releases at 2:20 p.m. and the decision was made to not end school early, Sudderth said.