The question of which religious celebrations merit school holidays continued to roil Fairfax County Public Schools this week, as the School Board on Tuesday directed the superintendent to scrap several proposed 2021-2022 calendars and develop a new one.

The order came after hours of debate, during which board members weighed the pros and cons of adding four religious holidays — Jewish celebrations Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Hindu festival Diwali and the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr. The idea of giving time off for these holidays was first proposed by a board-appointed task force last year.

In early February, the Fairfax School Board was supposed to take that recommendation into account when members voted to set a calendar for the next school year. But the board postponed its vote, instead requesting more time to weigh the decision after some members signaled they would prefer a calendar that did not include the holidays. The delay angered religious leaders in Northern Virginia, who wrote a scathing letter to the board.

The board called on Superintendent Scott Brabrand to develop another calendar option that addresses a list of concerns including “inclusivity” and “student wellness,” with a vote to finalize the calendar scheduled for March 18.

The board also directed the superintendent to consider granting students two “floating holidays” every year that they could use to earn excused absences for religious rites or observances.

“We need to give this an intentional, deliberate look,” said board member Abrar Omeish (At Large), who wrote the motion telling Brabrand to go back to the drawing board. “There are ways to be smart and creative about the calendar to ensure that we don’t sell anyone short and that we are an inclusive system.”

The new calendar will have to reflect “legal considerations,” “instructional concerns and disruption,” “operational disruptions,” “staff days off and planning time,” and “absenteeism data,” according to the instructions the board gave Brabrand.

The debate over the holidays dates back to 2019, when the task force began its work. Officials at the time charged the group with scrutinizing Fairfax’s “policies and practices regarding religious holidays, observances and practices . . . to help identify and recommend areas of improvement.” The task force gave its recommendations in January of last year, and they were taken up by the school system’s calendar committee shortly before the pandemic hit.

And that threw a major wrench into the process, Brabrand said Tuesday in response to board members who questioned why the calendar proceedings had taken the messy turn they did — and why Fairfax officials had not been more careful and deliberate from the start.

“Covid happened, that’s what happened,” Brabrand said. “My time has been almost overwhelmingly spent on returning kids to school . . . and not the calendar.”

Reinforcing his point, Fairfax sent thousands of eighth-, ninth- and 12th-graders back into classrooms starting Tuesday for two days of face-to-face instruction each week. The Fairfax plan promised to return all students who choose it to some form of in-person learning by mid-March.

In particular, the advent of the pandemic meant that Fairfax’s lawyers were less involved in the calendar drafting process than they should have been, Brabrand said.

Public school systems cannot legally cancel class for religious reasons, so granting children countywide a day off for religious observance requires a secular rationale — most commonly, that too many students and staff members will be missing from classrooms to justify holding instruction. (That is in part why so many school systems have built-in breaks that accommodate Christmas and Easter.)

During Tuesday’s meeting, Fairfax officials presented data showing that, over the past five years, student absences did not exceed the average on Rosh Hashanah or Diwali, although they did exceed the average on Eid al-Fitr and Yom Kippur. Staff absences exceeded the average on all four proposed holidays during that time.

Asked about the legal issues, Fairfax County Public Schools spokeswoman Helen Lloyd wrote in a statement that, “under applicable case law,” there are only two reasons that would permit Fairfax County Public Schools to declare a religious holiday a school holiday: excessive absenteeism on the holiday, or the holiday operating as a secular holiday as well as a religious holiday.

Board members repeatedly cited these legal concerns in arguing for a revised calendar option. But that was not the only alarm raised: Some also said the previous calendars offered by the superintendent would negatively affect Fairfax employees.

Board Chair Ricardy Anderson (Mason) said the calendars would shift summer vacation in a way that limits support staffers’ ability to work second jobs over the summer to supplement their income. She said her inbox was filled with at least 269 emails from anxious staffers worried about this exact outcome.

Board member Melanie K. Meren (Hunter Hill) said she also knows staff are concerned they would lose paid days off under the proposed calendars.

“Communities . . . feel pitted against each other,” board member Karl Frisch (Providence) said, referring to Fairfax employees and Northern Virginia religious groups. “Which is the worst part of what has happened here.”

Brabrand had opened the discussion on Tuesday by apologizing for any pain the controversy over the calendar has caused students, parents and employees in his district of 186,000.

“I’m sorry that our calendar process has been divisive,” Brabrand said. “That’s never been our intent, but sometimes even when you have good intentions, you can have an impact that provides hurt.”

He said he and his staff are committed to “getting it right,” and vowed to work through “all the issues, including legal issues” to produce the very best, most inclusive and academically rigorous calendar that Fairfax officials can offer.

Another solution discussed at length Tuesday was the suggestion that the superintendent issue a formal regulation setting clear expectations for when and how staff members should accommodate students’ and employees’ requests for time off to observe religious holidays.

Fairfax currently maintains guidelines directing teachers and principals to be generous in granting extensions on academic work and rescheduling exams for religious reasons. It also has a policy that allows staff members to request leave for religious observances. But religious leaders say these rules are often poorly enforced, placing a heavy burden on students and teachers of minority faiths.

On Tuesday, Brabrand said he agreed.

“We have fallen short; I have fallen short,” he said. “I take responsibility for that. We need to do better.”