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Great Neck school district adds Lunar New Year as holiday

Yuan Li dance group performs at the

Yuan Li dance group performs at the Lunar New Year celebration hosted by the Great Neck Chinese Association and held at Great Neck North High School on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016. Great Neck schools will begin taking Lunar New Year off in the 2017-2018 academic year. Credit: Steve Pfost

The Great Neck school district is declaring Lunar New Year an official school holiday in response to requests from Asian-American residents who are a fast-growing population in the district.

Great Neck appears to be the first district on Long Island to take this step, local officials told Newsday. A formal announcement will be made Monday night at the board of education’s meeting, said Barbara Berkowitz, the panel’s president.

Lunar New Year celebrations, which start on the day of the new moon between Jan. 21 and Feb. 20, often are described as a combination of Thanksgiving and Christmas. The holiday is observed in China, Korea and other Asian countries.

“We have learned of the importance of this holiday, and we appreciate the significance of Lunar New Year to the Asian-American community,” said Berkowitz, a 24-year school board member.

Berkowitz, in an interview, said the decision was reached jointly by board trustees and the district’s superintendent, Teresa Prendergast.

The first academic year when classes will close for the new holiday is 2017-18, because the next Lunar New Year falls on a Saturday.

“It’s wonderful, great news,” Shuna Luk, president of the Great Neck Chinese Association, said of the district’s decision. “We’re so appreciative.”

New York City added the holiday to its school calendar in 2015, and a number of other cities, including San Francisco, mark the occasion.

Advocates of the holiday in Great Neck packed a January school board meeting, where they presented results of surveys conducted among local residents. A survey by Chinese-Americans found 519 respondents favoring a school holiday, and only three opposed. Similar responses were found in a survey by Korean-Americans.

Many Asian-American parents in the community have described themselves as being torn between keeping children at home on the most important holiday of the year, or sending them to classes. The day is typically celebrated with cultural events and the making of dumplings for family members.

Asians make up 34 percent of the district’s enrollment of about 3,400 students.

Youngsoo Choi, an attorney, father of two and director of the Great Neck Korean American Civic Association, said he particularly appreciates the district’s promptness in responding to residents’ requests.

“They understand the importance of diversity as educators,” he added. “Educators are always on the forefront of understanding needs of parents and children.”

School administrators in Nassau and Suffolk counties have pointed out that adding new holidays to district calendars is a complicated matter, because of the number of vacation days already in place as well as the region’s ethnic and racial diversity.

State law requires districts to provide a minimum 180 days of school each year in order to obtain their full allotted share of state financial aid.

In 2014, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a law broadening the authority of schools to close on Lunar New Year or other days when religious or cultural observations keep most students home.

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