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Juneteenth will be a day off for many next year. Why doesn’t the law apply to WA schools?

Nov. 23, 2021 Updated Tue., Nov. 23, 2021 at 8:41 p.m.

By Matt Driscoll Tacoma News Tribune

TACOMA – Jennifer Ramella remembers how she felt when she looked at her children’s school calendar and saw the day that her 18-year-old daughter will graduate from Graham-Kapowsin High School. Instead of eager anticipation, Ramella said she was quickly filled with confusion, followed by anger.

The ceremony falls on June 20. There will also be school that day for students who aren’t graduating.

The problem, according to Ramella: That’s the same day that Washington state employees will celebrate Juneteenth as a paid day off. It’s also the day that Juneteenth – which commemorates when enslaved African Americans in Texas learned they were free, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation – will be observed as a federal holiday.

“It just bugged me,” Ramella told the News Tribune this month. “It made it feel like (Juneteenth) wasn’t as important as other holidays.”

Ramella’s eyes did not deceive her.

While next year will mark the first time that Washington state employees will observe Juneteenth as a paid holiday since Rep. Melanie Morgan’s much-celebrated bill became law, it’s a benefit that – at least so far – won’t apply universally to school districts across the state. According to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, the state holidays districts are required to take off – like Presidents Day and Christmas – are found under a different section of state code. The list of federal holidays also has no bearing on state law. In order for schools to be required to close down, the legislature must specifically include a holiday in the appropriate RCW. Of the 11 state holidays on the books in Washington, only Juneteenth – which officially falls on June 19 but will be observed as a day off under state law the following Monday next year – is not on the list.

In practice, that means that some local school districts – like Tacoma and Olympia – will be taking the day off. Others, like the Bethel School District – where Ramella’s children are enrolled – will not. Meanwhile, a number of local districts – like Puyallup, Lakewood and Sumner-Bonney Lake – are scheduled to be done for the year by June 20, but some have the date targeted as a potential snow make-up day.

While Ramella is white, she said her growing family is biracial, and she views failing to honor Juneteenth in the same way as other state holidays as a sign of disrespect.

Juneteenth became a state holiday, at least in part, to acknowledge the history of racism and oppression in this country, she said, and much like Black Americans have too often been treated like second-class citizens, relegating the new state holiday to something lesser than its counterparts feels like a slap in the face.

Last week, Morgan – who is Black and represents the 29th District, which includes parts of South Tacoma, Parkland and Spanaway – echoed Ramella’s concern.

As the sponsor of the bill that officially made Juneteenth a state holiday, Morgan described its omission from the list of school holidays as a “minor oversight.” It’s one she hopes to rectify in the upcoming legislative session, she indicated.

“We already have language ready to go,” Morgan said, acknowledging that her original Juneteenth bill focused on making sure state employees would have the day off, and that she was initially surprised to hear school districts wouldn’t automatically be included.

“It’s not unusual when we pass legislation that something gets left out, or we need to tweak something,” Morgan said. “This is a perfect example of something inadvertently left undone, and now we’re going to go back and fix it.”

It’s clarification and guidance school districts across the state would likely welcome. According to OSPI spokesperson Katy Payne, the agency has encountered differing approaches to the observance of Juneteenth this school year.

“We haven’t surveyed districts … to be able to say how each district is approaching the new holiday this year, but we do know that what you’ve described – two districts planning differently – is not unusual,” Payne said. “From the districts we’ve heard from about it, some are working it into their calendars for 2022 while others are waiting until the law applies to schools.”

In Tacoma, spokesperson Dan Voelpel said the district’s decision to observe Juneteenth as a day off this year was made by former district superintendent Carla Santorno and her leadership team, in consultation with local labor unions.

“The general feeling was that we have other state holidays off and why wouldn’t we include Junteenth?” Voelpel said. “After the state legislation passed, some of our labor partners reached out to collaborate and advocate for the day as a holiday in the district. Superintendent Santorno supported it, so we worked it into the calendar.”

Speaking on behalf of the Bethel School District, on the other hand, spokesperson Douglas Boyles struck a different tone. He disputed the notion that districts have a choice of whether or not to observe the Juneteenth holiday as a day off. Bethel is simply following current state law, Boyles said, which doesn’t include Juneteenth as day when schools are required to be closed.

“Graduation for the Class of 2022 at Bethel, Graham-Kapowsin and Spanaway Lake high schools is scheduled for June 20, 2022. That day is also a regular school day,” Boyles said. “We do plan to educate students about the importance of the new holiday during class time and other opportunities.”

That’s a start, according to Ramella, but it’s not nearly enough.

She understands that it can take time for districts to adjust, and that writing legislation can be imperfect, but sending her kids off to school on a day that’s supposed to be reserved for reflecting on the end of slavery in the United States doesn’t feel like it honors the intent of the new state law, Ramella said.

“You can change the schools schedule for COVID and snow and electric power outages, but you can’t change the schedule for a holiday that means a lot to this country and to people in this country?” Ramella said.

“I don’t know. I guess it just bothers me.”

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