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Fairfax County adopts school calendar with more religious holidays

The changes will give students days off for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Hindu festival Diwali and Orthodox Good Friday

Fairfax County Public School buses set idle at a middle school last summer. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)
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Fairfax County Public Schools will recognize more religious holidays in its calendar, coming after contentious debate and years-long frustrations among some parents in Virginia’s largest school system.

The changes, which bring Fairfax into alignment with surrounding school systems in the state, will give students days off for the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Hindu festival Diwali and Orthodox Good Friday.

The Muslim holy day of Eid al-Fitr and Lunar New Year also will be recognized, although they fall on nonschool days in 2022. In a change, students also will not have school on Veterans Day. The revised calendar, approved by the school board Thursday, will be effective for the school year starting this fall.

Many parents, students and advocates applauded the decision, saying families who belong to minority religious groups will no longer have to choose between going to school on a holiday and spending the day with family and their faith community.

“We are incredibly grateful and relieved by this new calendar and the days off for everyone for our most sacred holidays,” said Anna Stolley Persky, a Jewish mother of three Fairfax County Public Schools students. “It has been such a battle to be seen and heard. It finally feels like most of the school board took a huge step to help their marginalized non-Christian communities feel part of the district’s caring culture.”

In the meantime, those days are excused absences for students. Teachers are not supposed to teach new material on those days, but that was not always the case, said Pranav Choudhary, the student representative on the school board.

“What we have witnessed is that a lot of teachers don’t follow the guidance to not teach on these days,” said Choudhary, a high school senior, adding that some students were concerned about missing instruction. “This will level the playing field.”

The vote to approve the updated calendar was 10-0, with two members — Ricardy Anderson and Megan McLaughlin — abstaining.

McLaughlin said in a statement she didn’t vote for “extensive” reasons, including the effect of additional days off on students and working families, and also her belief that the board and public needed more time to discuss the changes. She said she also is concerned the calendar was becoming too focused on religion.

“I remain concerned that the School Board may not have fulfilled its constitutional requirement to implement a calendar that is secular (non-religious). Religious holidays should not be incorporated into school calendars unless there is an operational impact (high absenteeism for students and/or employees),” she wrote in the statement, adding that she supports the district’s culture of caring for students and staff.

Guila Franklin Siegel, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, pointed out that the vote for the new calendar took place on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“We are elated that the Fairfax County School Board has taken this landmark, long overdue step to advance equity for minority-faith students,” Franklin Siegel said. “It will have an immediate, dramatic impact on FCPS’ Jewish students and employees, as well as those of other minority faiths, who for the first time will feel that they have been truly seen and heard.”

The Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council expressed support for the new school calendar, saying in a tweet, “Our educational system and our country is best served when we accommodate students of all backgrounds.”

School board member Karl Frisch tweeted that the new calendar is “more inclusive and operationally sound.”

Some parents were critical of the calendar, saying students have too many days off and that the school year should include fewer than the approved eight teacher planning days to offset the new holidays, rather than making the school year longer.

Rory Cooper, who has three children in Fairfax public schools, said shortened school weeks are challenging for many working parents, who often have to scramble for child care.

“I think you can increase instructional time while including those observances,” Cooper said. “My wife and I are able to accommodate with child care currently, but a lot of families can’t.”

Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand said in a statement that the board took into account public input and surveys.

“Developing the school year calendar is both art and science, as it involves a careful balance of multiple considerations,” Brabrand said. “Our staff worked very hard to get this calendar right. We believe it is the best option to serve our families, staff, and students in the coming school year.”

Which religious holidays schools should observe has long been a flash point. Fairfax, along with other districts across the country, has struggled with how to create an inclusive school calendar — weighing fairness, logistics and legal constraints — as their communities grow more diverse.

Last year, religious leaders in Fairfax were critical of the school board after some members indicated they wouldn’t vote for the four new holidays to be observed, even though a task force recommended the school include those days off.

Hannah Natanson contributed to this report.