Juneteenth 2021: Were Districts Required to Close Today?

On June 17, 2021, President Biden signed the federal “Juneteenth National Independence Day Act” (the “Act”) into law, making June 19th the first new federal holiday in decades. Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when approximately 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation and announce the end of slavery.

Because June 19, 2021 falls on a Saturday, the holiday typically would be observed on the immediately preceding Friday – in other words, today. The Act’s quick execution by the President left government offices with less than 24 hours’ lead time to decide how to treat the first occurrence of the new official holiday, and it may have left districts wondering, what do we do this year?

To address that question, it is helpful to know what the Act does, and how it impacts Ohio law. The Act amends federal law to add Juneteenth to a statute that designates which holidays are “legal public holidays” for federal employees. See 5 U.S.C. 6103. The federal law pertains exclusively to federal employees.

Under Ohio law, R.C. 3313.63 authorizes boards of education to dismiss schools on certain specific dates, on days proclaimed by the state governor or President of the United States to be “a day of fast, thanksgiving, mourning,” and on days approved by the board for teachers’ attendance at an educational meeting. While the statute cites 5 U.S.C. 6103 in passing, it does so only in reference to Memorial Day; it does not incorporate the full list of federal holidays. Additionally, an Ohio law which became effective in 2009 already designates June 19th as “Juneteenth National Freedom Day,” but there was no requirement that the day be commemorated by schools. R.C. 5.2247. In contrast, Ohio law specifically requires schools to “commemorate” other holidays (Lincoln’s birthday, Washington’s birthday, Memorial Day, and Veterans’ Day). R.C. 5.23. So as of the close of business yesterday, Ohio law had not caught up to federal law in terms of legal holidays, and there was no requirement that schools close today.

But you may have heard on the news late yesterday evening that Ohio Governor Mike DeWine issued a statement appointing and recommending Juneteenth as a state holiday and announcing that many state offices would close today in observance of the holiday. The Governor’s office cited R.C. 124.19, which defines State holidays to include “any day appointed and recommended by the governor of this state or the president of the United States.” The announcement begged the question: did the Governor’s evening announcement change anything for schools?

The answer? Not definitively. R.C. 124.19 applies to state employees, but R.C. 3313.63 applies specifically to boards of education. As noted above, R.C. 3313.63 permits boards to dismiss schools “on any day set apart by proclamation of the president of the United States or the governor of this state as a day of fast, thanksgiving, or mourning.” R.C. 3313.63. This language differs significantly from R.C. 124.19, and nothing in the Governor’s announcement declared Juneteenth to be “a day of fast, thanksgiving, or mourning.”

So, to close or not to close? There’s no requirement that schools close today, but nothing would prevent a board of education from adopting a policy recognizing Juneteenth as a paid holiday for employees or from entering a memorandum of understanding to recognize the holiday. We will keep an eye on further developments between now and June 19, 2022.

Samantha Vajskop may be reached at svajskop@pepple-waggoner.com.

Follow on Twitter @SVajskopPW