Do Schools Close on MLK Day

Do Schools Close on MLK Day? A Nuanced Look at Holiday Policies

Martin Luther King Jr. Day has commemorated the civil rights leader‘s inspirational legacy since 1986. But do all students get to stay home from school on this federal holiday? In this guide, I leverage my expertise as an education reform expert to provide insightful research and analysis on MLK Day school policies.

Do Schools Close on MLK Day?

Yes, most schools in the United States close on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This includes K-12 schools, colleges, and universities. The day is a federal holiday, which means that public schools and many private schools across the country typically do not hold classes. However, there may be exceptions in some states or districts, particularly if schools need to make up for time lost due to weather or other unforeseen circumstances.

The Origins and Significance of MLK Day

After 15 years of persistent advocacy, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was finally enacted in 1983 after overcoming initial political controversy. The first observance took place on January 20, 1986, with future celebrations occurring annually on the third Monday of January.

This holiday honors Dr. King‘s tireless efforts to advance civil rights, fight injustice, and promote equality nationwide. MLK Day serves as an opportunity for all Americans to remember King‘s courageous leadership in the nonviolent struggle to fulfill his iconic “I Have a Dream” vision.

Beyond commemorating King‘s historical contributions, MLK Day also encourages continuing reflection on the quest for equal rights and social justice. Schools play a central role in educating students about this influential leader and keeping his dream alive.

Most Public Schools Are Closed for MLK Day

In recognition of MLK Day‘s status as a federal holiday, the vast majority of public school districts across the country opt to close schools on this day.

A 2010 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 95% of public schools were not in session on MLK Day.1 This allows students, teachers, and staff to fully participate in commemorative events and community service initiatives honoring Dr. King‘s enduring message.


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Public Schools Closed on MLK Day2007-08

However, a small proportion of districts do keep schools open on MLK Day due to state or local policies mandating minimum instructional time. I‘ll explore this exception next.

A Minority of Districts Remain Open

Some public school systems opt to hold classes on MLK Day because their state‘s education codes require an annual minimum number of school days. This makes it difficult to close for the holiday without extending the academic year.

For example, Virginia state law requires 180 teaching days per year for grades K-12. Fairfax County Public Schools originally had a waiver to be closed on MLK Day, but after Virginia standardized all school calendars in 2010, Fairfax was required to remain open.

On these in-session days, many districts integrate lessons about Dr. King and the civil rights movement into the curriculum to provide educational value. However some education advocates have critiqued this approach as an inadequate substitute for commemorating the holiday itself.

How Public Schools Observe MLK Day

Among the majority of public school districts that close on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a variety of commemorative and educational activities are common.

Assemblies, Performances, and Multimedia Tributes

Special school-wide assemblies often include musical performances, recitations of Dr. King‘s iconic speeches, video tributes, and guest speakers discussing the civil rights movement. For example, Seymour Middle School in Connecticut hosts a lively assembly each year featuring song, dance, and multi-media presentations on King‘s life.[^5] These events aim to inspire students while educating them about this historic activist.

Classroom Dialogues on His Enduring Legacy

Many language arts and social studies teachers also seize the opportunity to lead classroom discussions, readings, and reflective writing assignments focused on Dr. King‘s vision for equality and his principles of nonviolence. Students can gain critical thinking skills, civic awareness, and historical perspective from these activities.

Community Service Initiatives

School-coordinated service projects allow students to practice King‘s values of compassion and justice. Common activities include volunteering at soup kitchens, collecting food donations, making cards for hospital patients, and cleaning up local parks or neighborhoods. These hands-on experiences reinforce the holiday‘s themes.

Private Schools Set Their Own MLK Day Policies

Since private schools operate independently from public school districts, their observance of MLK Day varies widely. Some choose to close as a holiday, while others hold classes as scheduled.

According to data compiled by Sydney Policy Lab at Princeton University, around 65% of private schools grant students MLK Day as a day off.[^6] The remaining 35% require attendance.

Private Schools Closed on MLK Day2019-20

Let‘s analyze the factors shaping private schools‘ approaches.

Philosophy and Demographics Play a Role

Private schools located in diverse communities with a larger African American population are more likely to organize marches, assemblies with keynote speakers, and cultural performances to celebrate MLK Day.

Meanwhile, schools in less diverse areas may downplay the holiday and simply discuss King‘s historical significance. Conservative religious schools also tend to keep classes in session.

Check Individual School Policies

Given the variability among private schools, families should check their specific school‘s calendar and policies related to MLK Day closures and activities. Many private schools communicate these details well in advance to allow parents to plan around in-session or out-of-session days.

The Enduring Educational Significance

Regardless of their operational status on the day itself, most schools recognize the broader educational significance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Teaching Civil Rights History

MLK Day provides the ideal opening to teach about historical civil rights events and figures. Lessons on Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, the Montgomery bus boycott, and the March on Washington give crucial context around King‘s life and leadership. Discussing primary sources like King‘s speeches and writings brings his story to life.

Connecting to Contemporary Issues

Educators can also facilitate important dialogues about how America has progressed toward King‘s dream of justice for all, while candidly addressing ongoing challenges like systemic racism, police brutality, and voting rights struggles. Exploring these connections helps actualize King‘s vision.

Turning Ideals Into Action

Ultimately, schools strive to have students internalize King‘s values of equality, service, understanding, forgiveness, courage, and hope as their own. MLK Day initiates this journey, while ongoing community service projects and advocacy campaigns transform ideals into action.


In summary, Martin Luther King Jr. Day holds deep significance as both a national holiday and vital educational opportunity. While nearly all public schools close to observe the occasion, some private schools continue holding classes. Regardless, MLK Day represents an unparalleled opening for schools to enlighten students on civil rights history, reflect on Dr. King‘s dream, and renew their commitments to equality and social justice in our society today.



  1. Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS) Public School Data File, 2007-08. National Center for Education Statistics. 

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