New York City Council Member Margaret Chin played hooky once a year as a kid growing up in Manhattan’s Chinatown. When it was Chin’s turn to be a parent, her son did the same — with his mom and dad’s consent, of course.
It wasn’t exactly hooky; the absence, though still recorded, was excused. For years, Asian-American parents in New York City were forced to choose between keeping their children home to celebrate the first day of Lunar New Year — one of the most important holidays in Asian culture — and tarnishing their kids’ public school attendance record.
But that will all change come Feb. 8 as the city, in which one in eight residents is of Asian descent according to the U.S. Census, prepares to ring in the Year of the Monkey as a school holiday.
“The fact that we got it for a school holiday, that’s a big win,” Chin, a Democrat whose district includes Chinatown, told NBC News.
Closing schools for the first day of Lunar New Year — as well as for the Muslim holy days of Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr — was a campaign pledge Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, made in 2013 while running for office. For nearly a decade, city, state, and federally elected officials, along with community groups, had been fighting for the addition of the holiday in a public school system with 1.1. million students, of which one in six is Asian.
“Real education is about sharing.”
But when de Blasio announced in early March last year that Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr, would appear on this year’s school calendar, Lunar New Year advocates began to wonder if their holiday would be next.
In response, the city’s 12 congressional members sent a letter to de Blasio dated March 9, saying they were happy Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr would become public school holidays, but were "puzzled and concerned” about why Lunar New Year was left out. Four days later, city and state elected officials held a rally outside City Hall. On April 1, legislation was introduced in Albany to amend New York’s education law to recognize Lunar New Year as a public school holiday for any city with one-million people — namely New York City.
Former Queens state Assemblyman Jimmy Meng, a Democrat, was the first to propose such a bill in 2005, but it failed to gain a sponsor in the state Senate. Meng’s daughter Grace, a former state assemblywoman who is now a Democrat congresswoman from Queens, also introduced legislation in early 2009 with support from state Sen. Daniel Squadron, a Democrat whose district includes Chinatown.
“Under the prior city (Bloomberg) administration, there was a real lack of willingness to consider this issue,” Squadron, a co-sponsor of the 2015 bill, told NBC News.
At first, it looked as if the city’s Koreans, Chinese, and other Asians who celebrate the Lunar New Year would have to wait to see it added to the school calendar. Wiley Norvell, de Blasio's deputy press secretary, told NBC News last March that adding a school holiday requires months of analysis to ensure students have the legally required 180 days of instruction. Meeting the mandate is often a challenge, he added, especially when other school holidays fall on weekdays or if there are snow days.
“The mayor has never promised it by a certain time, although we have certainly promised to do it," Norvell said last March. "We do expect to get there, but it won't be for this coming school year."
After several months went by without any news, more than 40 elected officials, advocacy groups, and community leaders sent an open letter to de Blasio in June, saying his administration did not keep a promise to meet before the end of May for discussions. Around the same time, the state Senate unanimously approved a bill making Lunar New Year a public school holiday.
To become a law, all that was needed was passage in the Assembly — that bill was sponsored by state Assemblyman Ron Kim, a Democrat from Queens— and a signature from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose relationship with de Blasio at the time was strained.
Following mounting pressure, the mayor, who controls the city’s school system with state approval, announced on June 22 through Twitter that Lunar New Year would be added to the 2015-2016 calendar. The message was published in English, Chinese, and Korean.
“I think it was continuous advocacy from all of us,” Chin said. “We kept reminding the mayor and kept pushing and not accepting that we couldn’t do it.”
The next day, de Blasio delivered the official news during a press conference at a public school in Queens, where one-in-four residents is Asian. Squadron was one of the elected officials who attended.
“There’s no question that Senate passage and strong support in the Assembly sent a message that this was very important and had a great deal of broad support,” Squadron said. “At the end of the day, the mayor and chancellor made the decision, and they deserve credit for that.”
The city Department of Education said last June it was able to maintain the 180-day state minimum for instruction and add the holiday by combining two half-days previously allocated for staff administrative work. On Thursday, Norvell told NBC News de Blasio was proud that New York City will be the largest public school district in the country with Lunar New Year as a holiday.
“Changing the school calendar of 1.1 million students is no simple task, but we were determined to find a path that recognized this important holiday and preserved vital school time,” Norvell said.
Parents like Christine Colligan, co-president of the Korean American Parents Association of Greater New York, are thrilled about the victory. Although Colligan’s two daughters are all grown up now, she remembers going to their Queens elementary school when they were in first grade, back in the 1990s, to host a Lunar New Year celebration. Colligan wore a hanbok, a traditional Korean dress, and cooked Korean dumplings called mandu.
“We always say it’s not just for Chinese and Korean,” Colligan told NBC News. “Real education is about sharing.”