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Stop canceling school for Columbus Day

Giving students Columbus Day off is a wasted opportunity.
Giving students Columbus Day off is a wasted opportunity.
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Columbus Day is the most useless holiday on the federal calendar — and it's time to stop using it as an excuse for a day off school.

Set aside, for a moment, the controversy over whether Christopher Columbus's journey to the Americas should be celebrated at all. The holiday is, as it stands, a logistical headache. Fewer than half of states celebrate it, and almost no other offices do. Just 15 percent of private business close, the smallest proportion for any federal holiday. So if you're a parent in a Columbus Day-celebrating state — the ones in blue below — you're probably scrambling to find something for kids to do on Monday.

pew columbus day map

This isn't unique to Columbus Day — Veterans Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and Washington's birthday present similar issues for working parents, although it's slightly more likely for work to be canceled on the other holidays. And Martin Luther King Jr. Day, at least, is also celebrated as a national day of community service, a way to honor King's legacy that's also a good reason to cancel school.

Columbus Day has no such redeeming factor. Some states and school districts have managed the Columbus Day controversy by declaring a simultaneous "Native American Day" (as is the case in South Dakota) or "Indigenous Peoples Day" (which started in Berkeley, California, and has spread to Seattle and Minneapolis).

Here’s a better way to use Columbus Day: Make kids go to school that day, as they already do in 27 states. Celebrate Columbus Day by encouraging teachers to talk about the complicated legacy of Columbus in American history (including the day’s significance for Italian Americans, who still faced discrimination themselves when it was established in 1937). Going to class on Columbus Day and talking about history makes the day a reason to explore America’s past, not just an excuse for mattress sales. As it is now, it’s not just a logistical headache for parents — it’s a missed opportunity for real learning.

While we're at it, let's rethink Veterans Day, which also poses problems for thousands of parents a month later. Like Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Veterans Day could become an opportunity for community service, directed by either schools (if kids are in class) or community groups (if they're not). Up to 200,000 American veterans are homeless, and one in four veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan say they struggle to afford food.

We could make Columbus Day actually about history, and Veterans Day actually about service. In the meantime, if we really want to give everybody a day off in October or November, what about creating a holiday for Election Day?

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