Adams moves to make Diwali a school holiday, but puts the onus on Albany

A young student in traditional Southeast Asian dress joined the mayor and schools chancellor to in a rotunda.
Public school student Dilyn Chowdhary joined Mayor Eric Adams and schools Chancellor David Banks on Thursday to announce a push for Diwali to become a school holiday. (Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY)

This story was originally published on Oct. 20 by THE CITY.

Let there be light … if Albany flips the switch.

Mayor Eric Adams promised on Thursday to make Diwali a public school holiday next year for hundreds of thousands of New York City families observing the festival of light, but he’s asking state legislators to make it happen.

“It is long overdue to say to our Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist students and community that we see you, we acknowledge you,” Adams told those gathered at the education department’s headquarters in Lower Manhattan for the announcement with Queens Rep. Jenifer Rajkumar and schools Chancellor David Banks.

The announcement came a week after THE CITY reported Adams had broken his day-one campaign promise to make Diwali a public school holiday. But Adams will not unilaterally make the holiday a day off. Instead, he’s encouraging state lawmakers to pass a bill that would enshrine Diwali in the official school calendar, raising concerns among some holiday supporters.

The state requires a minimum of 180 school days in a year. To make Diwali an official school holiday, Rajkumar’s legislation will light the way by replacing “Anniversary Day” — or “Brooklyn-Queens Day” as the day off in June has been previously known —  with the Diwali holiday.

This year, Diwali will take place on Monday, Oct. 24. It is an annual pan-religious holiday, taking place in the fall, that celebrates the symbolic victory of light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance. It’s traditional for families to clean, set up diya lamps outside of temples, in the home, or on the streets, cook and pray together, and give gifts. But the school day intrudes on that sense of unity, observers of the holiday say.

Adams noted that “instead of looking from a place of deficit,” his administration “looked from a place of surplus” to identify a way for the city-state partnership to put Diwali on the calendar.

“It felt wonderful to have the mayor of New York City support Diwali,” said Rajkumar. “This is a great day for our city. This is a great day for our community.”

But not everyone is convinced the Diwali promise will come through.

Richard David, a district leader in South Ozone Park, Queens, and a member of the Diwali Coalition of New York City, noted that the mayor’s pledge today was “a helpful renewal of his commitment.” But he was not satisfied.

“Unfortunately, the Albany route is unpredictable and was avoidable. We must keep advocating for a Diwali school holiday,” he said.

Nishant Mittal, 44, a “concerned Hindu” and father of three from Manhattan’s Battery Park, wasn’t completely convinced by today’s press conference. Mittal doesn’t understand why Adams can’t follow his predecessor’s example when former Mayor Bill de Blasio added the Asian Lunar New Year and the Muslim holidays Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha as fixtures on the city schools calendar.

Mittal believes the announcement might draw attention away from “the mayor’s election promise of a school holiday for New York City’s approximately 500,000 plus who celebrate Diwali.” Instead, he said the mayor has “shifted the focus to the state-level forces in politics.”

Adams has long struggled to keep his South Asian and Indo-Caribbean supporters happy as families who celebrate Diwali are still waiting for their children to be able to celebrate the holiday without missing school. Some even heckled him to “make Diwali a holiday” at a celebration in Little Guyana this past weekend.

As of now, eight private schools that make up the New York Interschool consortium already give a day off on Diwali, as do some other non-public schools.

Some students are taking matters into their own hands. Avenues: The World School freshman Lekha Wood, along with her friend Raaghav Mittal and mentor Neil Desai, started a petition on Sept. 30 calling on Adams to declare Diwali as an official public school holiday. Avenues is private, but they said they made the petition for public schools. They’ve obtained more than 4,000 signatures so far.

If the Diwali legislation is approved in Albany, it would mean the end of Anniversary Day, which originally celebrated the first Sunday school on Long Island in the 1800s and has been celebrated in Brooklyn and Queens since the 1950s, according to Gothamist.

Last week when THE CITY asked the Department of Education where the holiday proposal stood, spokesperson Arthur Nevins pointed to the city schools’ new “Hidden Voices” Asian American and Pacific Islander-focused curriculum that launched this fall. It offers teachers a “Learning About Diwali” resource, which includes sample lessons for all grade levels K-12, as well as suggested activities, books and websites. 

With less than a week away from this year’s Diwali, DOE Chancellor Banks expressed joy that Adams made this promise while he was campaigning because now they are on the way to “a promise made and a promise kept.”

But advocates say they “don’t think it’s going to happen next year” and the fight must continue for the city “to urge the mayor to continue to do his best,” said Mittal. 

“Kids growing up need to see that their culture is at the same level as other cultures,” said Mittal. Otherwise, he is concerned students might say, “maybe it’s not so important.”

Lekha, the 13-year-old petition creator, remembers the fun night filled with pictures and the sense of accomplishment she had with her little sister when they made rangoli artwork with flower petals. But that night was two years ago when she coincidentally had the day off from school on Diwali.

“I remember just taking pictures and just snapshotting that moment,” said Lekha. “We were so proud of ourselves and each other, we just had so much fun.”

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