Howard County’s school board voted unanimously this week to markedly expand its schedule of religious and cultural holidays, a decision members said recognized the growing diversity of the suburban Maryland school system.
Students will get days off next school year for two Jewish holy days, following a debate over whether to end the longtime practice. They also will be off for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, the eve of Lunar New Year and the Hindu holiday of Diwali.
The change came in a vote Thursday night as elected officials sought to be fair to a growing spectrum of groups that have asked for students to have time off with their families on major holidays.
“I strongly believe that our school calendar should be inclusive of cultures and religions of all of our Howard County residents,” said board member Janet Siddiqui, echoing many of her colleagues.
Howard’s action is likely to draw attention nationally as school systems struggle with how to create an inclusive school calendar — balancing fairness, logistics and legal constraints — as their communities grow more diverse and religious minorities become increasingly vocal.
“Once other communities see this school district has made this accommodation, they’re going to ask, ‘Why can’t we do it here?’ ” said Charles Haynes, founding director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, who said he expects the decision to have ripple effects.
The decision will be in effect for 2016-2017 while the school system studies the issue. Officials also plan to hire a firm to conduct a voluntary survey of religious preferences. The board asked district staff to report back with a range of options for how to implement the change.
School officials have long said that by law, they must have secular reasons for closing schools on religious holidays, such as expectations of high absenteeism. In deciding to close for the Jewish holidays in 1979, for example, Howard officials said that staff absentee rates of 12 percent were interfering with instruction.
The Montgomery County Board of Education recently moved a professional day to ensure that students would get a day off next fall for Eid al-Adha. But the decision in Howard goes further.
“This is really unprecedented,” commented Zainab Chaudry, a spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “We haven’t seen any school board vote to grant an accommodation to so many diverse faiths. It shows we don’t have to strip any religious group of their holiday in order to reach a compromise that’s fair to everyone.”
Thursday’s decision in Howard followed extensive backlash about a calendar proposal that would have kept schools open on the Jewish holy days of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah for the first time in more than three decades.
School officials said that proposal, one of two options, was put forth as a way to treat religious and cultural groups more equally by closing schools only on state-mandated holidays. Maryland state law requires schools to be closed on Christmas and Good Friday as well as on the Monday after Easter.
During a lengthy board discussion on Thursday, members spoke of their community’s history of diversity, with some saying it was what drew them to move to Howard.
“I believe that we should celebrate the two Jewish holidays, the two Muslim high holidays, we should have Diwali and we should have the Lunar New Year,” said board member Ann De Lacy. “If we’re going to give, I believe in either all or none.”
Ellen Flynn Giles, the board’s vice chairman, voiced caution, saying that the board could not close schools for holidays without a secular reason for doing so and noting that there are many other holidays not under consideration for days off.
“Once you open to that, you have to honor every single one, and that becomes impractical in finding a way to serve school for 180 days,” she said, while adding that students and parents must feel respected for their cultural and religious observances.
Reaction to the decision was strong.
“Our whole community is thrilled by this news,” said Jean Xu, president of the Chinese American Parent Association of Howard County, who said word spread quickly through social media within moments of the vote.
“We finally can celebrate our holiday with our families, and we don’t have to choose between an instructional day and our cultural tradition,” she said.
Naimish Pandya, a Hindu community leader and father of two, said having the Diwali holiday off will allow families like his to carry on their traditions. He also said it’s an opportunity for people from all faiths to learn about each other’s practices.
Michelle Ostroff, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Howard County, also credited the community for coming together and working across religious and cultural organizations: “We accomplished so much more than when we tackle these issues in silos.”