With its growing and diverse population, public school systems in Northern Virginia have begun to accommodate the holidays of minority religious and ethnic groups.
The latest is Prince William County. On Nov. 4 its school board voted to add days off to its 2021-2022 school calendar to accommodate four religious holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr and Diwali, which is celebrated by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs. Several other school districts in Northern Virginia are considering similar changes.
The addition of holidays to the school calendar is necessary, due to the growing population of these groups in Northern Virginia, said Guila Franklin Siegel, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
The Jewish population in the area grew by 80 percent between 2003 and 2017, according to a demographic study released that year.
Closing school on a religious holiday is tricky, because the First Amendment prohibits the government from establishing an official religion and favoring one religion over another.
Christmas and Thanksgiving are public holidays. School districts have gotten around the problem by scheduling “professional development days” on Rosh Hashanah or other holidays, or closing, not for the holiday itself, but because so many absences are expected that schools will not be able to function.
If a large enough number of teachers are seeking time off for, say, the High Holidays, there may not be enough substitutes to replace them, Siegel said.
“There’s no area of our region that looks the way it looks 15, 20 years ago,” she said. “And so what we’re seeing is a wave of initiatives by local school boards to revise their calendars to better reflect the diversity of their student population. This is in line with the movement for greater inclusion and cultural awareness that we’re seeing in society generally.”
Prince William County Public Schools made its decision after sending out a survey. The survey presented two options for the school calendar. The first was to leave the calendar unchanged. The second was to add the four religious holidays and eliminate four days from winter and spring break.
The survey results were presented to the school board on Oct. 21. The board then asked school officials for a third option. It would add the four religious holidays but leave winter break unchanged. It was this option that the school board approved in November.
The changes go into effect in the 2021-22 school year. Students will have Sept. 7 off for Rosh Hashanah and Sept. 16 off for Yom Kippur. The school year will be extended by five days to accommodate the four holidays.
Other school districts are looking into making similar changes to their calendars.
Loudoun County Public Schools and Arlington Public Schools have sent out community surveys seeking feedback on offering these four religious days off. And Siegel said the Fairfax County School Board is also considering closing on those holidays.
Montgomery County Public Schools offers a day off each for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. So do Frederick County Public Schools. But over the summer, the Frederick School Board considered an initiative that would have removed those days from the 2022–23 calendar to accommodate a new start date that was under consideration.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington opposed the change the Frederick School Board was considering, Siegel said.
The JCRC produced a letter advocating for the school board to keep the holidays, then circulated the letter for local rabbis to sign. The effort was successful. On Nov. 11, the board approved a calendar that included the holidays.
“We consider that a positive thing that they did not eliminate [those holidays],” Siegel said.