Board of Education Votes to Close School for Students On Possible Muslim Holiday

MCPS staff will look into moving a teacher professional day to Sept. 12, 2016, which could be Eid al-Adha


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Montgomery County Board of Education (file photo)

Aaron Kraut

A year after declining to close schools for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, the county Board of Education on Tuesday directed school system staff to look into closing school for students on Sept. 12, 2016, which could be the day the holiday is celebrated next year.

The board (BOE) made the decision by a 6-2 vote that followed input from Muslims who live in the county, many who have long lobbied Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) to close school when Muslim holidays fall on school days in the same way it closes schools for Jewish and Christian holidays.

The solution for 2016 put forth by some advocates and endorsed by BOE member Chris Barclay would move an existing teacher professional day (days when there is no school for students but teachers are on the clock to prepare or grade) to Monday, Sept. 12.

That day could end up being Eid al-Adha, during which Muslims hold a feast to celebrate the prophet Abraham and mark the end of the Hajj pilgrimage. Because of disagreements over how to calculate the first day of the month in the lunar-based Islamic calendar, it’s sometimes not clear exactly which day the holiday will fall on in different regions around the world.

Saqib Ali, co-chair of the Equality for Eid Coalition, told the BOE on Tuesday that it’s not yet clear if the North American date for Eid al-Adha will fall on Sunday, Sept. 11 or Monday, Sept. 12.

Even though MCPS Interim Superintendent Larry Bowers and staff recommended against moving a professional day to Sept. 12, Barclay and his supporters on the BOE said it was time to make the move after years of advocacy on the issue.

“This board, to be quite honest, needs to step up and make a decision to step into the fray and say what are we going to do or not going to do,” Barclay said. “I’m really concerned that we are putting ourselves in a place that we give lip service to the diversity that we have in this incredible community that we live in and serve.”

Bowers said that adding a teacher professional day would cost about $6.57 million and moving some of the professional days during the school year would be difficult because those days are already set in the school system’s contract with unions that represent its teachers.

There are five professional days that precede the first day of the 2016-2017 school year that could be moved without reopening the school system’s contract with the teachers’ unions, according to the debate held by board members and MCPS staff Tuesday.

Board President Patricia O’Neill and member Phil Kauffman cited the state’s calendar of holidays for the 2016-2017 school year, which puts the Eid al-Adha holiday on Sept. 11. The two also cited Baltimore County’s recent decision not to close schools Sept. 12.

“There’s really no one else to compare us to,” countered BOE member Jill Ortman-Fouse, who voted with Barclay to explore the possibility of a Sept. 12 professional day. She said a recent study named Montgomery County the most diverse county in the U.S.

“When educators come here, they come here because of the diversity,” she said.

Ali said the issue “is not something that has been ginned up from other countries, other jurisdictions.”

“This is a very homegrown effort and we hope you will hear our voice after many years today,” hesaid.

MCPS has long closed schools for the first day of the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well for Christian holidays such as Christmas and Good Friday.

Last year, the board’s debate on Eid al-Adha drew national attention after the board decided to strip the names of all religious holidays from its calendars despite still closing schools those days.

Like last year, MCPS staff recommended against closing on Eid al-Adha in part because not enough students and teachers have been shown to miss the days. MCPS officials have long said a high rate of absenteeism is the only standard they can legally use to call off school because a religious holiday.

Via MCPS​

Bowers presented absentee data from Sept. 24, the day of Eid al-Adha this year, that showed little change in the number of students and staff who missed school that day. MCPS does provide excused absences for all students who miss class to celebrate a religious holiday.

After Tuesday’s vote, advocates for no school on Eid al-Adha at the board meeting in Rockville stood and applauded.

MCPS staff must come back to the board next month to present a revised 2016-2017 school calendar to reflect the desired change.

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