Montgomery County’s Board of Education was not being a Grinch when it removed the names of religious holidays from the school calendar and replaced them with secular names such as “winter break.”
The board vote drew national attention and became an instant cause for extremists, hatemongers and conspiracy theorists. But with its vote, the board bought some time – the next school calendar will be drawn up over the course of the coming year – to figure out how to address the scheduling needs of an increasingly multireligious and multicultural community.
The school district maintains that it must have a “secular, operational reason” for closing schools – not a religious reason. Absences of teachers and students is the district’s explanation for why it closes schools on Christmas, Good Friday and Easter and, since the 1970s, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur. Those planned closures will not change under the new approach. It is only what the days are called on the scheduling calendar that will be changed.
When members of the Muslim community first called for schools to close on the holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, they caused the county to look more carefully at its standards for school closures. Just what level of absenteeism should trigger the closure of schools? There is no county handbook that gives the answer. The closest thing the county has to solid data is that school attendance was down 5 percent in October 2013 on Eid al-Adha – not enough, it said, to close the schools.
The move by Montgomery County is not unique. Communities across the country – including in Baltimore City, Virginia’s Loudon and Fairfax counties and in the city of Pittsburgh – manage their calendars without reference to religious holidays. That doesn’t mean that the school board should ignore religious communities. Those communities should be consulted, so that the views and needs of all factions can be understood and addressed, including those of the Muslim community.
We have little patience for the voices of extremists, who seized upon Montgomery County’s effort to fan the flames of bias and confrontation. The Muslim community did not “force” the school board to cancel Christmas and Yom Kippur. Those incendiary accusations are simply not true.
Our school boards have enough to worry about in their ongoing efforts to provide quality education to our children. We need to let our school districts focus on that all-important task and stop distracting school leaders and others in the community with bias, prejudice and manufactured controversy.