Residents ask Shrewsbury School Committee to adopt Diwali holiday


Residents ask Shrewsbury School Committee to adopt Diwali holiday
Residents gather outside of the Shrewsbury School Committee meeting. (Photo/Bill Gilman)

SHREWSBURY – Dozens of residents packed the Feb. 15 School Committee meeting to request that Diwali be added to the district calendar as an official holiday.

Diwali, also known as the “Festival of Lights,” is a celebration dating back more than 1,000 years. It is considered to be among the most important holy festivals of the Hindu calendar. Over the generations, it has transcended religious lines, and it is also celebrated by Sikhs, Jains and Newar Buddhists.

The celebration, noted for family gatherings, gifts and traditional light displays both inside and outside of homes, falls between mid-October and mid-November each year. The lights are said to symbolize replacing negativity with wisdom and prosperity.

Several of those in attendance at the Feb. 15 meeting, including students and parents, spoke during the public comment period about the significance of Diwali to their families and asked Superintendent Joseph Sawyer to recommend it be added as a “no-school” holiday to the district calendar.

In addition to the residents who spoke at the meeting, School Committee Chair Lynsey Heffernan said the committee had received numerous written comments about adding Diwali as a holiday to the district calendar and that members had reviewed all of them.

“This festival is an annual homecoming and bonding for many families,” said Anand Sharma. “When we were in India, our parents [taught us about] the celebration. It was a holiday and it became an integral part of our lives. We want the same thing to happen for our children here.”

According to Sharma, Shrewsbury Public Schools includes 33.6% Asian students, with a large number of those students of Indian heritage. Westborough, another community with a large Indian population, already recognizes Diwali as a “no-school” holiday on its district calendar. Several other Massachusetts school districts have done likewise.

Shrewsbury High School student Gia Sharma said recognizing Diwali as a school holiday would allow and encourage students to fully participate in the celebration with their families.

“I urge you to include [Diwali] as a holiday because I always miss out on being with my family on this day,” she said. “They always tell me about the activities they have been doing the whole day and its significance. I believe they want to tell me everything because they want me doing the same thing when I grow up and have a family.”

The School Committee will be voting on the official 2023-24 school calendar at its March 1 meeting. However, Sawyer made clear that his recommendation would be to keep the present holiday calendar unchanged, citing a policy recommended by a Calendar Committee in 2005 and reaffirmed by a Calendar Committee in 2016.

According to Sawyer, the district’s policy since 2005 is to have school be in session on religious holidays that are not mandated by the state or federal government. Prior to that, Good Friday, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were “no school” days in Shrewsbury.

According to Sawyer, the 2005 Calendar Committee cited, as one of its reasons, a desire to be fair to all cultures and religions in a town that was increasingly diverse.

“There was already a sense that Shrewsbury was becoming a much more diverse community religiously,” he said. “And that there were going to be Hindu families, Muslim families, Sikh families, families that observed lots of different religions, who were going to need and want to celebrate their own religious holidays.”

Sawyer said that while it was his recommendation not to add Diwali or any other religious holiday to the “no school” days on the calendar, the district would ensure that students would, in no way, face any type of punishment or academic setback by taking those days off to be with their families. This includes, he said, making those religious holidays “no test/homework days” in the schools.

He added that he believed teaching students about different cultures and religions was important to building understanding among the student population and strong bonds within the community.

“Shrewsbury is an even more vibrant place today than it was 25 years ago when I first came here because we have such a diverse community,” said Sawyer. “That is something that has enriched our school district, enriched our community.”

“Recognizing and celebrating diversity is a core value of our school district,” he added.


Shrewsbury father advocates for students to get Diwali off