How are Fairfax County schools handling ‘observance days’?

Photo by Boonyachoat

Correction: This article corrects an earlier version that incorrectly stated that the Fairfax County School Board is now considering a school calendar for 2022-23 that does not close on minority religious holidays. It is not considering such a calendar.

Two months into the school year in Fairfax County, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington released the results of a survey in which it asked for opinions on the calendar of the current school year.

The calendar for 2021-22 uses “observance days,” rather than closing schools on specific days.

Respondents to the non-scientific survey said some teachers did not accommodate students’ absences this year when schools were open on holidays. The survey was meant to gauge how schools handled the Jewish high holidays in particular, said Guila Franklin Siegel, JCRC associate director. Respondents fear that the same thing will happen next year, she added.

In March, the Fairfax school board announced that it would adopt a calendar featuring the so-called “O“ days — on which students and staff may take off to take part in religious observances.

In doing so, the board rejected two proposed calendars that were designed by the county’s calendar committee. Those calendars were designed to be “inclusive” and would have ensured school closures on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Eid and Diwali.

Both calendars had received broad support from Muslim, Jewish and other minority organizations, according to the JCRC.

“At the last minute, the school board asked the superintendent to create a third calendar that did not include any of those days off,” Franklin Siegel said.

Fourteen “O” days were built into the 2021-22 calendar. “On [‘O’ days] there is not supposed to be any meaningful schedule. No quizzes, no review days, no new material being taught,” Franklin Siegel said.

Following the implementation of the “O” day calendar in the fall, the JCRC set up an online poll asking students, parents and teachers to share their experiences during the high holidays.

There were 92 responses. A minority said that teachers accommodated student absences, almost the same number responding that either they or their children had teachers who were not supportive of students’ absences. Most said that either they or their children “experience stress and anxiety around the holidays.”

“As the school system begins the process of developing a calendar for the 2022-2023 school year, we felt it was important to share this data now, with the school board and administration,” Franklin Siegel said.

“[This ‘O’ day calendar] created a situation that is untenable for Jewish students and employees where they have to advocate [for themselves] — the pressure is on them to hold supervisors’ and teachers’ feet to the fire,” she said, adding that no student should have to remind a teacher that they cannot schedule a quiz on an “O” day. “Kids do not want to do that. They are afraid that a teacher will take it out on their grade.”

Prince William, Arlington and Loudoun schools all close on minority religious holidays, she said. Fairfax County “is an outlier at this point.”

The school board vote on the 2022-23 calendar is scheduled for Jan. 27.

The Fairfax County School Board did not respond to several calls for comment from WJW.

In Maryland, the Montgomery County School Board on Oct. 26 held a meeting to review three calendar options for the 2022-23 school year. The primary distinctions are the start and end dates of the school year and the timing of spring break. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are designated as “non-instructional” days when schools are closed. Diwali and Eid will fall on a weekend in the next school year.

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