The school board met earlier this month to discuss the recommendations and had planned to vote on a final 2021-2022 school calendar. But then it postponed the vote until next month — with some board members signaling they preferred adopting a calendar that did not include the four new religious holidays.
In a letter sent to the board Tuesday, seven D.C.-area faith groups — all of which sent representatives to serve on Fairfax’s Religious Observance Task Force — wrote that the delay had caused “deep disappointment [for] thousands of Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Sikhs” in the county.
“Our minority-faith community members are left to conclude that after investing in a nearly 18-month process they trusted, one which was initiated by the Board itself, their voices are still being ignored,” reads the letter, which was signed by the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, the Durga Temple of Virginia, the Hindu American Foundation, the McLean Islamic Center, the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, the Sikh Foundation of Virginia and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
The letter also urged board members to “move forward with confidence and conviction” to approve adding the four new holidays as soon as possible.
Board Chair Ricardy Anderson did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday. Fairfax Superintendent Scott Brabrand, who was copied on the letter, wrote in a statement that updating the calendar is one of “many critical issues” facing his school system at this point of the pandemic — adding that returning children to classrooms safely is “essential in this moment.”
“We deeply appreciate and respect the careful thought and work that our community, especially the Religious Observances task force, has contributed,” Brabrand wrote, “as we move forward to ensure that our school calendar reflects the incredibly diverse community we serve.”
The Fairfax board is also facing internal criticism. Board member Abrar Omeish, who has advocated for the calendar change, wrote in a statement that the board’s actions last week were “inaccurate and out of touch … and sends a message that only some stakeholders matter.” Adding the four holidays would “build the society we want and need for our future,” she wrote.
Melanie K. Meren, another board member, wrote in her own statement that the board is flouting recommendations that represent “a culmination of years of advocacy,” and reflect the views and wishes of people hailing from a wide range of religions and cultures.
She wrote: “The School Board’s commitment to equity, community engagement, and transparency are being tested.”
The religious task force began its work in 2019, after officials charged it with re-examining “policies and practices regarding religious holidays, observances and practices … to help identify and recommend areas of improvement.” The task force was meant to conclude its review and give advice in time for administrators to update the 2021-2022 academic calendar.
Guila Franklin Siegel, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said the task force’s formation came at a pivotal time for Fairfax: when the county’s religious and demographic diversity were rapidly increasing, while school systems in the Washington region simultaneously faced an outbreak of antisemitic bullying.
She pointed to a 2017 study from Brandeis University that found the Jewish population in Northern Virginia increased by 80 percent between 2003 and 2017.
“For years and decades, NoVa was a much more homogenous population,” Siegel said. “But now what we’re hearing constantly is that Jewish parents and their children are struggling to handle issues related to accommodations for their religious observance.”
School officials are not legally allowed to close schools for religious reasons, given the constitutional separation of church and state. But they can grant individual children time off for religious celebrations, and many school systems — including Fairfax — have policies that ask teachers to be flexible and lenient in that regard.
Giving children countywide a day off for religious observance demands a secular rationale: for example, that so many students and teachers will be missing from school hallways on a particular holiday that it makes no sense to hold instruction that day. That is why so many school systems recognize Christmas and Easter.
At the Feb. 2 Fairfax board meeting, some members said they worried that adding the four holidays would make it difficult to maintain a secular school calendar and might favor certain religions over others. Others noted that Fairfax already has generous accommodation policies meant to ensure that teachers extend assignment deadlines and reschedule exams for students observing religious obligations — although local religious groups argue that those policies are frequently ignored by individual teachers and are impossible to enforce countywide.
Still other board members raised the concern that adding more time off to the academic calendar is exactly the opposite of what is needed, given that nearly a year of pandemic-driven online learning has left some students — especially the most vulnerable children — struggling academically. By that line of thinking, officials should do whatever they can to provide more learning opportunities for children, not reduce them.
“For me the trauma and remediation needs from covid … I think that is the primary factor this year and should be the primary factor in looking at our calendar,” board member Rachna Sizemore Heizer said at the Feb. 2 meeting.
The debate in Fairfax comes as a spate of school systems in the Washington region have begun adding Muslim and Jewish holidays to their calendars. Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland’s largest district, added a day off for Eid al-Adha in 2015 and another day off for Eid al-Fitr in 2019. Nearby Howard County Public Schools inserted days off for Diwali, Lunar New Year and Eid al-Adha in 2016.
Over the past six months, a flood of Northern Virginia systems followed suit. Arlington Public Schools and Prince William County Public Schools both agreed to add holidays for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Diwali and Eid al-Fitr in late 2020. In December, the Loudoun County Public Schools board voted to add days off for Yom Kippur, Diwali and Eid al-Fitr.
Ahead of the Arlington, Prince William and Loudoun votes, the Jewish Community Relations Council teamed up with other religious groups to write letters to the three school boards advocating for the addition of the new holidays.
But Siegel of the Jewish Community Relations Council said Fairfax, the state’s largest and most prominent school system, was always the big target for the group.
“Since I joined JCRC four years ago, I have set my sights on working on this issue in Fairfax,” Siegel said. “It would be a game-changer for a huge segment of the Northern Virginia Jewish community.”
Fairfax spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell said the school board is scheduled again to vote on the calendar at a March 18 meeting. Ahead of that, Siegel said the JCRC and other religious groups are joining forces to launch an “education and advocacy campaign” in Fairfax County. They hope to change board members’ minds.
“This Board should not be known for disenfranchising … minorities and ignoring the needs and dignity of thousands of FCPS families,” the groups wrote in their letter Tuesday, “but rather for fostering a school system that reflects the very best of American values — mutual respect, appreciation of the diversity that strengthens the fabric of our society.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect date for the board meeting vote. It also incorrectly stated that the Jewish population increased to more than a quarter of a million people in Northern Virginia. That number refers to growth across the Washington region.