It came as a victory to many in the Muslim community when a Maryland school district decided to shift its calendar so that students would be sure to have a day off on Eid al-Adha, one of the faith’s two major holidays.
Hindu leaders in Montgomery County soon came forward to ask about Diwali. Then the board got a request about Lunar New Year.
The challenge of how to create an inclusive school calendar — balancing fairness, logistics and legal constraints — has increasingly become an issue for school districts nationwide as they grow more diverse and as religious minorities become more vocal.
The Howard County Board of Education is scheduled to consider a proposal Thursday that would keep schools open on the Jewish holy days of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah for the first time in more than three decades.
The change, one of two options, was suggested as a way to treat religious and cultural groups more equally, school officials say — by closing schools only on state-mandated holidays — but the backlash was swift. Hundreds of people packed a public hearing last month, and hundreds more have emailed the board nearly every day since — most supporting an option to keep the calendar as it has been, while more research is done.
“There was no data-driven basis for this proposal,” said Michelle Ostroff, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Howard County, echoing others who asked how such a change could be considered without having evidence about its potential impact.
Maryland law requires closing schools on days that include the Christian holidays of Christmas and Good Friday, as well as Easter Monday.
Howard officials say they opted to close for the Jewish holidays in 1979, because the staff absentee rate of 12 percent interfered with instructional programs.
The district in recent years has been fielding new requests for school closings from the Muslim, Hindu and East Asian communities, said Ellen Flynn Giles, vice chairman of Howard’s school board. As in other school systems, Howard officials say they can’t by law decide to close public schools for religious holidays; they say there must be secular reasons, such as expectations of high absenteeism on specific days, which would affect school operations.
“The system looks very different than it did 36 years ago, and there have been increasing requests from other groups to have their religious holidays recognized in the same way,” Giles said.
Charles Haynes, founding director of the Religion Freedom Center at the Newseum Institute, said that school holiday debates are symbolic and raise deep cultural-identity issues.
“It really isn’t about religious holidays in public schools,” Haynes said. “It’s about what kind of country are we? Are we a country where everyone is treated fairly, or is the deck really stacked for those who have been here the longest, or who have the most members, or who have dominated our institutions?”
New York City’s calendar this school year for the first time included days off on Eid al-Adha and Lunar New Year, a move that followed a campaign promise from Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“We are committed to having a school calendar that celebrates our diverse student population and the city,” said Yuridia Peña, spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Education. “Families shouldn’t have to choose between an instructional day and their religious and cultural traditions.”
Howard County lists 14 major holidays it asks educators to consult so as to avoid conflicts when scheduling tests or athletic events, Giles said. Given those holidays, and others, she said Howard could face many more requests for school closings.
For the current school calendar, Howard moved a professional work day to coincide with Lunar New Year, so that it is a day off for students. For next school year, Lunar New Year falls on a Saturday, and community members have asked the board to move a professional day to coincide with the eve of the holiday.
Jean Xu, president of the county’s Chinese American Parents Association, said families see the day as part of an important cultural tradition that involves special foods, gifts and time with relatives and friends.
Students who miss school for Lunar New Year celebrations have to make up their work, she said. Having the day off “creates an equal education opportunity and equal treatment,” she said.
Muslim leaders in Montgomery County for years had asked for a school closing on at least one of the faith’s major holidays, noting that Montgomery students get major Christian and Jewish holidays off.
In November, the board decided to move a professional day next school year to coincide with a possible date for Eid al-Adha, which is based on a lunar calendar. Hindu leaders went to Montgomery’s school board at meetings in December and January, asking for similar consideration.
They noted that Diwali is celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists. They started an online petition to get a day off for students, saying a professional work day could be shifted.
Hindu leaders say closing schools on Diwali would allow children to celebrate, go to temple and keep up traditions without fear of missing school. When schools are open, “the importance of the holiday is completely lost,” said Nanik Lahori, a founder of the Chinmaya Mission Washington Regional Center.
Shortly after hearing from Hindu leaders, the school board received an email asking about a day off on Lunar New Year, said Member Patricia O’Neill, who worried that granting one holiday request would touch off another.
“It opened a Pandora’s box, and you don’t necessarily know all the requests that may come to us,” she said. “As a matter of fairness, I think Diwali and Lunar New Year need to be considered in an equal situation.”
Board member Christopher Barclay, who offered the proposal to accommodate Eid al-Adha, said there are legal constraints that limit what the board can do, but the county’s diversity is a central issue. “Given that diversity, everyone wants to see themselves reflected in what we do,” he said.
Montgomery’s actions in November came as Anne Arundel County also made a shift in its calendar — deciding to open schools on Rosh Hashanah next year for the first time since 2003, school officials said.
The change was made as the school board juggled considerations regarding the school year’s start and end dates and spring break, spokesman Bob Mosier said. Some in Anne Arundel voiced disappointment, but there was not a major outcry, he said.