Maryland’s largest school system is considering a policy to guide decisions about its annual school calendar, a move that comes nine months after officials set off a wave of public anger by scrubbing the calendar of religious holiday names, including Christmas.
The proposed policy does not revive the hot-button issue of identifying religious holidays on the document, but it touches on a related debate in Montgomery County: Under what circumstances should schools be closed on religious or other occasions?
Montgomery schools are closed by state law from Christmas Eve to Jan. 1 and from the Friday before Easter to the Monday afterward. Classes also are canceled on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a result of county decisions that date to the 1970s.
Muslim community leaders have pressed the district to close schools on at least one of the faith’s two major holidays, arguing that the matter is an issue of fairness in a district that holds no classes on major Christian and Jewish holy days. But they have not succeeded in their efforts.
Montgomery school leaders say that they cannot, by law, decide to close on religious holidays. Instead, they must have operational reasons for not holding classes, such as an anticipation of high levels of student and staff absenteeism, they say.
The proposed policy reflects that idea, including a section describing the possibility that schools could be closed to promote educational interests or operational needs. It uses the example of a potential closing if there is a likelihood of absentee rates higher than 15 percent for staff and students, either systemwide or at a “substantial portion” of schools. Each case would be evaluated independently, the proposal says.
“That is sort of the standard that was used in the ’70s, when the system decided to close for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” said county Board of Education President Patricia O’Neill.
The school board is expected to discuss the proposal at its Sept. 8 meeting. If it is tentatively approved, the document — most of which reflects current practices — would go out for public comment.
School officials hope a new policy will be in place when the calendar comes up for discussion in November.
Muslim community leader Saqib Ali voiced disappointment in both the proposal and a recent board committee discussion of the matter.
“It was pretty clear no one was championing equality for Muslims in Montgomery County,” said Ali, a former state lawmaker and a co-chair of the Equality for Eid Coalition.
Ali said no one on the committee focused on whether it was possible to find a legal way to close schools when the Islamic holidays of Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr fall on school days.
Of greatest concern, he said, is that the new policy would “grandfather in” holidays for some religious groups while leaving others to meet the policy’s guidelines. “It creates two tiers of religious holidays in Montgomery County,” he said.
School board member Philip Kauffman, chairman of the board’s policy management committee, said he asked whether there was any legal precedent that would affect the board’s decision-making and was told there was not.
Kauffman said past decisions to close schools for the Jewish holidays were based on high absentee rates. “There was evidence at the time of an operational impact, and that was the reason the school system decided to close,” he said.
A 1973 school district document puts student and staff absences on the first day of Rosh Hashanah at about 15 percent, compared with average yearly absences of about 8 percent for students and 6 percent for staff members at the time.
The number of Muslim students attending county schools is unclear. Figures from 2013 — when Muslim leaders made a concerted effort to keep students home on a holiday — showed 5.6 percent of students and 5 percent of teachers absent, compared with 3.2 percent of students and 4.2 percent of teachers on a comparable day the previous week.
Students who miss school to observe their religious holidays are excused, but Muslim families say their children should not be forced to choose between their faith and their education. Older students in particular worry about falling behind because their classmates continue on without them, they say.
The county does not administer districtwide tests on major Islamic holidays, and teachers are encouraged not to give tests on days when they know there will be a higher level of absences, said schools spokesman Dana Tofig.
But Ali said some teachers still give tests on Muslim holidays.
“For that reason, some Muslim students attend school on that day because they are fearful for their grade,” he said.
The discussion of holidays and the school calendar comes as Montgomery recently released a reference guide on religious diversity that is intended to be a “one-stop shop” for information involving religion and county schools. It covers issues of religion in clubs, class assignments and clothing, as well as absences on religious holidays.
The district has also changed the primary calendar presentation on its Web site, which now includes a method for adding in religious holidays and other days of cultural and ethnic celebration. The operational calendar that was the focus of controversy does not have holy-day names in keeping with last year’s vote.