Montgomery schools: Absences on Muslim holiday higher, but officials say not overly so

Muslim leaders in Montgomery County may have hit a stumbling block in their efforts to persuade school district officials to declare one of the two major Islamic holy days of the year an official school holiday.

With Montgomery’s board of education expected to consider the school calendar at its Tuesday meeting, district officials have released figures they say do not show abnormally high rates of absenteeism for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

High rates of absence are considered a potential basis for adding a holiday to the school calendar. Officials say they cannot simply recognize a religious holiday with a day off.

District figures showed 5.6 percent of students and 5 percent of teachers were not in school on Eid al-Adha, which fell on Oct. 15 this year. As a point of comparison, on the previous Tuesday, a normal school day, 3.2 percent of students and 4.2 percent of teachers were absent.

“There is a slight increase that day, but it’s not out of the normal range of what we would see on a Tuesday,” said Montgomery schools spokesman Dana Tofig.

Muslim leaders had urged Muslim families to keep students home and encouraged non-Muslim families to show support by doing the same.

Saqib Ali, a former state lawmaker and co-chair of the Equality for Eid Coalition, said Monday in an e-mail that school officials did not release enough data for a solid analysis and that more data will be requested.

For example, Ali said, the district’s figures spotlighted teacher absences, rather than all staff absences. Many Muslims work in other positions, such as paraeducators, bus drivers and cafeteria workers, he said. Ali said the group would request data for each school day of the first quarter and do a full comparison.

Muslim leaders argue that students get days off for Christian and Jewish holidays in Montgomery County, and that giving time off for at least one Muslim holiday is a matter of fairness. They have been supported by a number of elected officials and religious organizations.

State law provides for school holidays timed with Christmas and Easter. Montgomery began closing school for Jewish holidays in the 1970s.

Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said in a memo to the school board that the decision about Jewish holidays was made as a result of high absenteeism, which “impacted the delivery of instruction.”

Starr’s memo, dated Oct. 17, said that a review of attendance figures over time has not shown absences “exceptionally higher than absences on other school days.”

Starr’s memo said that under current practice, the Muslim holidays are designated as non-testing days and that students who miss classes to observe the holiday are excused. “Every effort is made to assist students in completing any work that may be missed,” he said.

Muslim families say students should not have to miss important instruction and that many teenagers in particular are torn, feeling like they can’t skip class, but should not miss celebrating the holy day with their families.

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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