Montgomery County schools will be closed the day after the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha next year, but the calendar will list it as a professional day for teachers rather than as a religious holiday.
The school board voted Nov. 10 to rearrange its calendar so that Sept. 12, 2016 could be a day off in recognition of the diversity of the student population, explained board member Christopher Barclay, who proposed the calendar change amendment. It was approved by a 6-2 vote with Patricia O’Neill, board president, and Philip Kauffman, member-at-large, casting the dissenting votes.
Interim Superintendent Larry Bowers had recommended that the schools remain open during this year’s Eid al-Adha celebration because the absentee rates for staff and students “was not significantly different than absentee rates on other school days,” he wrote in a memo to school board members.
Under federal law, “legally, the school system cannot close down because of a religious holiday,” said Ron Halber, Jewish Community Relations Council executive director. Schools can close for operational reasons, such as if too many teachers would be absent, he said.
High absenteeism is why schools are closed for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, not because they are religious holidays. The names of the High Holidays are not listed on the school calendar.
Zainab Chaudry, Maryland’s outreach manager and spokesperson at the Council on Islamic-American Relations, said she was “delighted” with the board’s decision.
“It’s a tremendous relief for many families” who now will not have to decide whether or not to keep their children out of school that day, she said. However, she said, “It would have been ideal to have the holiday listed as Eid.”
Chaudry said she didn’t consider it a problem that teachers will have to work that day as “we don’t see a lot of Muslim staff and educators in Montgomery County. The number is definitely insignificant” compared to the number of Muslim students.
The JCRC “respects” how the district manages the school system, Halber said, adding “a very strong line has to be maintained” on when schools can be closed.
Being able to adjust professional days “is an added benefit for the Muslim community,” he said.
Closing schools for the Eid holiday was brought up last year as well. Rather than close schools for Eid al-Adha or Eid al-Fitr this school year, the board instead voted not to name any religious holidays on the official 2015-16 school calendar. There is an option to view holidays and cultural celebrations on the online calendar.
In Tuesday’s hourlong discussion, school board members didn’t discuss closing school because of one of the Islamic faith’s major holidays. Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice, celebrates the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca. Prayers and the holiday commemorate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismael, known to Jews as Ishmael, at God’s command.
Instead, the discussion revolved around how to show respect for the diversity of the student body.
“I think we have an opportunity right here, right now” to recognize the diversity of students, said Barclay.
He asked the school staff to find a way to move one of the already scheduled nine professional days to the Muslim holiday.
It would be a good idea “to change the way we do schools to support students and families,” Barclay said.
School board member Jill Ortman-Fouse agreed: “It’s an issue of fairness. It’s an issue of respect for members of our community.” Montgomery County has been rated one of the most diverse counties in the country, she said.
The staff was asked to report back to the board next month about which of the district’s nine professional days will be moved. At that time, the 2016-17 school calendar will be approved. It currently calls for 184 days of instruction, with the first day of school falling on Aug. 29.
The school district does have a written policy that discusses various religions and holidays and what students can and cannot do on those days, explained Rabbi Batya Steinlauf, the JCRC’s director of social justice and inter-group initiatives. She is co-chair of the Montgomery County Executive’s Faith Community Working Group, which helped create the 16-page document.
Written in nine languages, the Guidelines for Respecting Religious Diversity details what students are allowed to wear, including kippot, and that they don’t have to wear shorts in gym class in respect for their religion’s call for modest dress.
Added Steinlauf, it’s difficult to be accommodating to all, “especially since the administration and staff can’t even ask [a student’s] religion.”