After months of debate and lobbying from an interfaith coalition, the Fairfax County School Board voted Thursday not to add days off to its 2021-2022 school calendar that would have accommodated four holidays belonging to minority religions. Two previously proposed calendars included days off for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr and Diwali, which is celebrated by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs.
Instead, the board voted to approve a calendar marking 15 religious and cultural observances. Classes will be held on these days, but tests, quizzes, field trips, graduation, homecoming or athletic events will not be scheduled. Employees are allowed to make up 16 hours of any time missed for these observances. The marked holidays are:
- Eid al-Adha
- Rosh Hashanah
- Yom Kippur
- Día de los Muertos
- Bodhi Day
- Three Kings Day/Epiphany
- Orthodox Christmas
- Orthodox Epiphany
- Lunar New Year
- Good Friday
- Orthodox Good Friday/Last Night of Passover
- Eid al-Fitr
School Board Chair Ricardy Anderson explained his support of the board’s decision in a statement.
“The approach taken in the development of this calendar is one of equity and inclusivity. It aims to center equity by elevating our systems’ respect for religious and cultural observances,” Anderson said. “While this final calendar for 2021-22 may not align with the goals of everyone in Fairfax County, it recognizes all religious and cultural observances where Fairfax County Public Schools has seen above-average absences over the last five years.”
Rabbi Jessica Wainer is upset with the board’s decision.
“I feel really, unfortunately, unsurprised, and at the same time, incredibly disheartened and disappointed with the school board and their decision last night,” said Wainer, the associate rabbi at Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation in Reston. “I think that it was very narrow-sighted and they’re patting themselves on the back for adding a plurality of holidays. But what they don’t understand is that equality does not equate to equity.”
Prior to the vote, The Washington Post wrote about the community outrage over not adding the four holidays off, citing 16,000 emails sent to the board on the issue along with a petition signed by nearly 500 students in support of it.
“The school board’s decision to deny all four requested closures on days coinciding with Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Diwali, and Eid was a slap in the face to Fairfax County’s Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh communities,” a JCRC statement read. “There is no way to sugar-coat the disrespectful, dismissive, and ill-informed approach that too many school board members adopted towards our interfaith coalition throughout this process.”
This recent fight over the calendar dates back to 2019 when the school board created an ad hoc task force composed of several religious groups, including representatives from Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. This Religious Observance Task Force was to advise the board on how to better accommodate the religious needs of its more than 180,000 students.
With feedback from the group, FCPS announced last June that the school board would consider two different calendars, each resulting in the four religious holidays off. The vote to approve one of these calendars was scheduled to take place in February. However, the board decided to postpone the vote. At the time several board members voiced concern over adding additional days off after a year of disruptions resulting from the pandemic.
“The pandemic has been a serious challenge for the entire FCPS community, and all of Fairfax County, since last March,” wrote FCPS Spokesperson Lucy Caldwell in a statement sent out in February. “There are many critical issues; The debate over the FCPS school year 21-22 calendar is clearly one of those.”
On Feb. 2, the district presented the board a third calendar option without the four religious holidays off. After members of organizations of the Religious Observances Task Force raised objections the board asked Superintendent Scott Brabrand on March 2 to create a fourth calendar option. It was this calendar the board ended up approving.
Some board members were skeptical of the need for these holidays off. FCPS staff presented the board on March 2 with an analysis of student absences on a number of religious holidays. The data show no significant rise in absences in the past five years on these dates, including on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (except in 2018 when Yom Kippur coincided with an early release day). But Wainer said the data don’t tell the full story as some students choose to attend school over religious holidays as to not fall behind in their studies.
“Teachers, principals, administrators are forcing our children to choose between their academics and their religion,” Wainer said. “And they are not making it easy to choose and they’re putting so much pressure on kids to do this. I talked with a congregant the other day whose child is in fifth grade, and already is pushing her parents to let her go to school on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur this coming year because she’s already so worried about what work she will miss on those days. A fifth-grader should not have to make that decision.”
The JCRC’s associate director, Guila Franklin Siegel, said the district’s list of 15 holidays is “full of errors” as it was based on school attendance data, which Siegel calls “flawed data points.” She added that the JCRC was not consulted on the list’s development in order to ensure the accuracy and relevancy of the occasions on said list.
“The list contains arbitrary inclusion of the last day of Passover without including other holidays like the second day of Rosh Hashanah or Sukkot or Simchat Torah,” Siegel said. “There’s nothing that distinguishes the last day of Passover from any of those other holy days and yet it was included. We don’t know why. And we don’t know why other days were excluded. This list screams out lack of cultural competency.”
Fairfax has a policy of allowing staff members to request time off for religious observances, according to The Washington Post. The district also maintains guidelines directing educators to grant students extensions on academic work or to reschedule exams for religious reasons. However, Wainer said these policies, along with the new calendar, don’t go far enough in ensuring fairness to students observing minority religious holidays.
“The debate absolutely continues,” Wainer said. “Things are not settled. We will continue to fight for equity for our families in Fairfax County. We will work with the school board with the administration to ensure that all students who are religious minorities are treated equitably and are not penalized for choosing their religion over academics.”