On Tuesday, November 11, 2014, MCPS Board of Education voted to strip the official school year calendar of all religious references. Students will still have school off on holidays such as Christmas and Yom Kippur, but there won’t be any explicit references to the names of the actual religious holidays.
This vote was brought to the table when members of the Muslim community expressed concerns that the Muslim holiday of Eid Al Adha falls on the same day next year as Yom Kippur— September 23, 2015, yet only Yom Kippur would be acknowledged based on the current calendar.
Currently, schools do not close for Muslim holidays. Subsequently, the Board considered three options: one that eliminated all references to holidays, one that kept the status quo, and one that named Eid al-Adha on the calendar. The Board eventually adopted the proposal from Board member Rebecca Smondrowski, eliminating all religious references from the 2015-2016 calendar.
The Board of Education explained that MCPS cancels school for certain religious holidays due to high absenteeism among students and staff and a lack of substitutes. Holding school during Eid does not result in the same level of absenteeism, and schools are still able to function without a substantial decrease in educational quality and resources.
In a recently released public statement, Board members Patricia O’Neil and Phil Kauffman wrote that “the decision the Board made to remove the names of religious holidays does not change the ability of our students or employees to celebrate their religious and cultural holidays.”
According to their statement, in the 2015-2016 school year, schools will close on one day of Rosh Hashanah (September 14, 2015), on Yom Kippur (September 23, 2015), on Christmas Eve and Christmas (December 24 and 25, 2015), and on the Friday before and Monday after Easter (March 25 and 28, 2016), although none of those days off will be labeled with the associated religious holidays.
Many in the Muslim community did not hope for this response from the Board of Education. Muslim groups have voiced that they didn’t support Jewish holidays being removed from the calendar either, but rather were just in pursuit of equal treatment for Eid.
“The Muslim community in Montgomery has rightfully lost complete trust with this Board of Education,” said Saqib Ali, a former Maryland Delegate and an advocate of the recognition of Eid in the MCPS calendar.
“I think MCPS made a big mistake. They should have done what we repeatedly have urged them. Next year schools are already closed on September 23 for Yom Kippur. Eid-ul-Adha falls on the same day. They should have just relabeled the closing ‘Yom Kippur/Eid-ul-Adha’. What was wrong with such a simple solution?” Ali questioned.
Hannah Shraim, a student at Northwest High School and co-chair of the Equality4Eid coalition, agreed with Ali.
“The decision benefitted no one. It was insensitive to the Christians and Jews who celebrate their respective holidays in the county. As stated before, it also did not address how the board will deal with Muslim holidays in the future.” Shraim expressed.
Shraim also voiced her frustration that her peers of other faiths were given a break from assignments while she must work to catch up because her faith remains underrepresented.
“Muslims are the only group in the county who must choose between education and faith when choosing to observe Eid. It is a problem that not should, but must be taken care of since the Muslim community is an ever growing one.” Shraim concluded.
Ali stated that while the Board tries to frame the Smondrowski amendment as an inclusive move, the decision is an attempt at denying Muslims equality. Ali further stressed that the rationales cited by MCPS are feeble and don’t stand up to basic scrutiny, hence sparking a national uproar.
However, Student Member of the Board of Education Dahlia Huh noted that “MCPS cannot legally close schools on religious grounds. Any decision to close schools on a particular day must be made for a secular, operational reason.”
Huh also stated that the Board’s action is in line with what is done at many other large, diverse districts across the country, including the Los Angeles Unifed School District and school systems in Dallas, Atlanta, and Philadelphia. According to Huh, having a day-off on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Easter Monday, and Good Friday are state or national mandates. The decision to close school on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah came after a large percentage of reported absences, as high as 50 percent in some places, among both students and staff.
“One of the highlights of MCPS is its diverse student population and its core value of respect to all students. Teachers are encouraged to respect the religious diversity of our community by minimizing testing and homework on these cultural and religious holidays,” Huh added.
Nonetheless, Huh also noted that students who have testified at Board meetings have said that they would like to see this better enforced. “I will be working with my Board colleagues to ensure that every student is able to celebrate their special day with family members while also not having to worry about falling behind in school work,” she said.
“I realize that the Board’s decision was not a perfect solution. [Nonetheless], it was the fairest option for many of our families and MCPS will continue to monitor the operational impact of the Eid holidays,” Huh explained.
In response to the escalated controversy surrounding this decision, Board members O’Neil and Kaufman concluded their public statement “[condemning] the outpouring of bigotry toward the Muslim community that has been generated by [the Board’s] decision.”
Written by the MoCo Student MCPS News Staff
Graphic by Angel Wen, MoCo Student staff artist