Peculiar Pittsburgh

No one really knows why Pittsburgh-area kids have off school Monday to go hunting

Students in Philly will be in class.

Deer hunting season
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On Monday, Pittsburgh Public Schools will be closed, all of them. That’s 54 schools, 3 center programs and 8 Early Childhood Centers in total, public information officer Ebony Pugh explained.

Many schools across Pennsylvania will also be closed, along with some businesses. But it isn’t a federal holiday. Government buildings aren’t closed. It’s not a post-Thanksgiving respite either, at least not officially.

It’s the first day of hunting season — deer rifle season to be exact — and in Pennsylvania it’s a big deal. An unofficial holiday, even.

Now, you may not hunt, and you may not understand why after a long weekend of caring for your children, you must also make arrangements for them on what is likely your first day back to work. In truth, no one else is entirely sure either. But here’s the best we could come up with.

White-tailed deer have been hunted in Pennsylvania — and Pennsylvania before it was Pennsylvania — since the first humans arrived here.

In fact, hunting was permitted as a right of ownership on all lands covered by William Penn’s Charter. (Here’s a timeline of deer hunting’s history in Pennsylvania, courtesy of PennLive.)

In the 300 or so years that followed, hunting has continued as a means of mitigating crop damage caused by deer. Deer hunting also generates tons of venison annually, some of which is consumed by the hunters themselves and some of which is donated to feed the needy.

It’s also been touted as a means of minimizing unwanted encounters between motorists and the animals or of keeping deer populations from becoming too large and the animals from suffering slow, agonizing deaths due to over competition for resources like food.

Of course, not everyone agrees with all of these points. (PETA, please direct your letters to The (Duquesne) Incline, 1197 W. Carson St. …)

But why close schools?

Some districts cite the anticipated number of student and teacher absences as the reason. Others say that’s a myth. Elsewhere, it’s seen as a convenient way to extend the holiday break.

For hunting advocates, though, it’s also a way of encouraging younger people to take up the hobby — a hobby those same advocates consider crucial for all the reasons listed above. (There is no age restriction on hunting in Pennsylvania, although there are conditions.)

And while some schools will close, there’s nothing requiring they do.

In places like Philadelphia, for example, public schools will be open as usual Monday, potentially to the surprise of recent arrivals from elsewhere around the state.

“I grew up in Pennsylvania, and we always had the Monday off after Thanksgiving, and we always attributed it to being the first day of hunting season,” said Mark O’Neill, a communications director with the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

“But I went to college in Philadelphia and when I said we don’t have class the Monday after Thanksgiving, everyone looked at me like I was insane.”

Others may be wondering why, instead of closing schools on Monday, students and teachers don’t just go hunting on Sunday. Short answer: That isn’t allowed, although some want to see that change.

There’s also been talk of pushing up the opening of deer rifle season to Black Friday or the Saturday after Thanksgiving, something the Farm Bureau supports. (The bureau, however, does not support Sunday hunting.)

But that scenario appears unlikely, according to Travis Lau, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Lau explained that while back in the 1930s and ’40s the opening day of deer rifle season fell on Dec. 1 no matter what day of the week it was, “at some point there was a shift to the Monday after Thanksgiving.”

It’s unclear exactly why that shift occurred, but the conventional wisdom around a Monday start date has been debated ever since.

“It seems like there’s talk about it every year, not that there’s ever been any action or a formal proposal to move the opening day to the Saturday after Thanksgiving because that would be another opportunity during the weekend when a lot of people have off and time to hunt,” Lau said.

He continued, “There has been a reluctance — on the part of the Game Commission’s eight-member board — to fully hear that [debate] out.” He added, “I’m not sure a majority of hunters want it either.” It’s the Game Commission’s board that sets the policy.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania has been losing 2 to 3 percent of its hunters and license buyers year over year since 1982, Lau said.

There have been periodic bumps, he added, but they’ve been small compared to the overall decline. The phenomenon isn’t limited to Pennsylvania either. Lau cites a nationwide downward trend believed to have a lot to do with people’s busier schedules and fewer people taking up similar outdoor pursuits and hobbies.

As for child hunters, Lau said the Pennsylvania Game Commission has seen record numbers of graduates in its hunter education courses in as many as five consecutive years.

“But not all of those new graduates buy a hunting license,” he added, meaning the long term impact on hunter ranks in Pennsylvania remains unknown.

In the meantime, rifle season will continue to start the Monday after Thanksgiving and your child’s school will likely continue to be closed for that reason.

And if you’re struggling to explain to your kid why that is exactly — not that they’d question the reason for a free day — the simplest answer may be this: It’s a tradition.

Want some more? Explore other Peculiar Pittsburgh stories.

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