“Imagine having to take an exam on Christmas or Passover!”
So begins a petition from 170 students at Montgomery County’s Chevy Chase Elementary, urging the Board of Education to close schools for two major Muslim holidays as a matter of respect and fairness.
“MCPS schools are closed on Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter, and on Jewish holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Why not Eid?” the petition asks, giving descriptions of the Muslim holy days of Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr.
Eleanor Clemans-Cope, a fifth-grader from Bethesda, has led the effort to spur the change, following a number of attempts from Muslim community leaders to ask that Montgomery’s 202 schools be closed on at least one of the main Muslim holidays.
The Montgomery school board has thwarted those efforts, saying it can’t opt to close schools for religious holidays, needing instead evidence of high absenteeism or other operational effects that would justify a day off.
The board attracted national attention during the school year when it decided to strike the names of religious holidays from the district’s 2015-2016 calendar rather than include equal billing for Eid al-Adha.
The student petition notes that Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr are a time for “prayer, visiting with family, feasting, and gifts” and argues that school districts in at least four states are closed for the two Muslim holidays.
Although Montgomery officials say students who miss classes for Muslim holidays receive excused absences and that teachers are encouraged not to give tests on those days, Muslim community leaders — and now the petition — argue it is still unfair.
“Our Muslim staff and students should have their important holiday treated the same as other religions,” the petition says. Eleanor, who is 11, said she wants the holy days to be treated with similar respect.
“I felt like it was important to give other cultures their days off,” she said.
The importance of the issue became clear to her, she said, after she attended the wedding of family friends who celebrate Eid.
Her mother, Lisa Clemans-Cope, described Eleanor’s school as diverse and inclusive, and said school leaders were supportive, helping Eleanor to operate within the school district’s rules for such efforts.
Eleanor and other students also felt the issue personally, she said, because some of their classmates celebrate the Muslim holidays. “She may have started this thing, but they embraced it, the school and the kids,” her mother said.
Chevy Chase Elementary’s principal, Jody L. Smith, said Eleanor researched the issue extensively and talked with people affected, including a school staff member, as she sought to understand it.
“I’m really proud of her for trying to follow her beliefs,” Smith said.
In an e-mail that accompanied the petition, Eleanor described the board decision to avoid mentioning the names of religious holidays on the calendar as a “ridiculous sham because Christian and Jewish kids still get their most important holidays off — they are just not marked.”
The petition’s 170 signatures came mostly from fifth- and sixth-graders and were sent to the school board’s ombudsman, who passed it along to elected officials.
Board President Patricia O’Neill said she received the petition and that the board takes public views into consideration every year when it decides calendar issues.
Still, she said, the school system cannot by law give religious holidays off but must have secular reasons for closing schools, such as high levels of absenteeism by students or staff.