- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Montgomery County Board of Education on Tuesday voted to strip the names of Christian and Jewish holidays from its school calendar amid complaints from the parents of Muslim children seeking recognition for Islamic holidays.

The schools still will be closed on the holidays, but the board voted 7-1 to move the religious references from the calendar.

The surprise development came after Muslim community leaders complained that the Eid al-Adha holiday was not getting equal recognition on next year’s school calendar as the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, which both will fall on Sept. 23.

Superintendent Joshua P. Starr recommended that the board adopt a plan that removed calendar references to Yom Kippur and another Jewish holiday, Rosh Hashanah.

But while considering the superintendent’s suggestion during a meeting Tuesday, school board member Rebecca Smondrowski introduced a motion to remove references to all religious holidays.

“It is about equity,” Ms. Smondrowski told MyMCMedia. “I made the motion because if we are closing for operational reasons, then there should be no need to make reference to religion. That is the most equitable solution that I could see while recognizing that we need to be seriously addressing the criteria for how these things are decided in the future.”

The board’s decision will apply only to the 2015-2016 school year and won’t affect references to federal holidays, schools spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala said.

“Any federal or state holiday will remain as it has on our calendar,” Ms. Onijala said. “This is specifically for religious holidays.”

Muslim parents, partnering with the Maryland chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, last year unsuccessfully petitioned the school system to cancel classes on the Islamic holidays of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of a month of fasting during Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, the last day of Hajj.

Officials declined to close the system’s roughly 200 schools on the holidays, noting that the absentee rate was not high enough on those holidays to warrant the closure.

The school system said it does offer excused absences for students on religious holidays that fall on school days and makes teachers aware of numerous holidays so they are able to plan tests and other activities around them.

County officials insist that they look at the issue not as a religious one, but as a secular one, noting that closures are approved for days on which a large number of students or teachers would be affected.

They pointed out that the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur closures were not meant to honor the faith but were imposed because of the high number of students who were not attending classes.

“The decision to close on these days — originally made in the 1970s — has been based on the experience of significant student and staff absenteeism impacting the school system’s ability to continue an instructional program and operate safe schools,” Mr. Starr wrote in a letter sent to the school board ahead of its vote.

Despite a growing Muslim population in the county, Mr. Starr said, the schools have not seen a similarly high rate of absenteeism among the system’s 154,000 students on the Islamic religious holidays.

It’s unclear how much of the school system’s student population is Muslim, but The Gazette in Montgomery County reported last year that 5.6 percent of students and 5 percent of teachers were absent on Eid al-Adha last year. The figure compared with about 3.2 percent of students and 4.2 percent of teachers the same day the previous week.

The issue of closing schools to honor religious holidays has heated up across the country in recent years as school systems acknowledge demographic shifts that have resulted in more diverse student bodies.

Dearborn, Michigan, with a Muslim population in its school system reportedly as high as 60 percent, has recognized Islamic holy days for more than a decade.

School systems in Massachusetts and Vermont in recent years also have approved school closures for the Muslim holidays.

During last year’s mayoral election in New York City, candidates expressed support for a measure to shut down the public school system on the Muslim holidays.

It’s likely the issue comes up again in Montgomery County as school board members may revisit the decision again before adopting school year calendars.

“They felt the conversation was ongoing and there was still a lot to discuss,” Ms. Onijala said.

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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