Public schools shouldn’t close for religious reasons

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post - Hannah Shraim, 14, her father Ihab Shraim and mother May Salloum-Shraim in the family kitchen.The Shraim has two high schoolers who will not be in school for the Muslim holiday Eid.
Hannah Shraim, 14, with her father and mother at home in Montgomery County . She will not attend school on the Muslim  holiday Eid. (By Michael S. Williamson / The Washington Post.)

Some Muslims in Montgomery County are pushing for  public school district to close schools on two major religious holidays, including one, Eid al-Adha, that is being celebrated today, according to this Post story by my colleague Donna St. George. Muslims say that their community should be respected in regard to the school calendar in the same way that Christians and Jews are. What’s wrong with that reasoning?

The problem is that American public schools are not constitutionally allowed to close to accommodate any religious need, meaning they aren’t supposed to close for religious reasons (even if Christmas Day is an official federal government holiday). But there is, in fact, a practical secular reason for closing school on some religious holidays in some areas: too many students and/or teacher absences can make it difficult, if not impossible, to hold meaningful classes.

Changing demographics in the United States have made the once uncontroversial school calendar into a hot topic. Muslims as well as Bahais, Hindus, Sikhs and others have urged various school districts to honor their holidays by closing. And some already do.

In some school districts in Michigan, New Jersey and other states where there are heavy Muslim populations, schools do close on Eid al-Adha, which marks the Hajj pilgrimage of Muslims to Saudi Arabia, and Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan. A few school districts in New Jersey have closed, too, for the Hindu celebration of Diwali. Schools in heavily Jewish areas close for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

School systems around the country allow students to stay home with no penalty for literally scores of religious and cultural holidays, but, obviously classes can’t be cancelled for each one.

About 10 years ago, this New York Times story says, the Prospect Park School District in New Jersey started to close school on the first and last days of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan because at the time some 25 percent of the district students were Muslim and staying home on those days. James F. Barriale, the superintendent at the time, was quoted then as saying,

We started to look at the trends and number of students absent. We were reteaching a lot of the lessons, and then you are basically wasting the day. We received compliments on this. Now the kids aren’t missing lessons.

 

According to St. George’s story, Montgomery County officials looked at school attendance around Muslim holidays:

Figures from the past three years show Muslim holidays had little impact on attendance, school officials said. Last year, Eid al-Adha fell on a Friday, and 5.56 percent of students were absent, similar to other Fridays. About 6.5 percent of staff was absent, which was fairly typical, they said.

 

Schools should be closed when it makes practical sense to close them, not to accommodate any religious tradition.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | October 14, 2013