Montgomery County schools won’t have classes on one of the Islamic faith’s major holidays next year, a significant victory for the local Muslim community after years of lobbying for the same treatment as Christians and Jews.
Montgomery’s Board of Education voted 6 to 2 to support a measure that would move a professional work day for teachers and administrators to Sept. 12, 2016, when the holy day of Eid al-Adha could fall next year. The holiday, which varies year to year and is based on a lunar calendar, is expected on Sept. 11, a Sunday, or on Sept. 12.
The decision marked a long-sought change in the 156,000-student suburban Washington school system, Maryland’s largest.
There are no exact numbers showing how many students and staff celebrate Muslim holy days in Montgomery, but Muslim leaders say their community is growing. They have requested that schools close on at least one of the religion’s two major Muslim holy days. School leaders have said they cannot, by law, close schools to observe religious holidays.
The district closes schools on major Christian and Jewish holidays such as Christmas and Yom Kippur, but officials cite state requirements or operational effects such as expectations of large absenteeism on those days.
Montgomery leaders made national news last year when they struck the names of religious holidays off of the county’s school calendar document in an attempt to show neutrality, a move that drew criticism, including from the Muslim community. The school system has created an additional online calendar on which users can view religious holidays and days of cultural celebration.
Muslim community leaders say that the issue is fairness and that, without a school closing, Muslim students must choose between their faith and their education when Eid al-Adha or Eid al-Fitr fall on a school day.
“I am very happy. I am in tears. I am thrilled,” said Samira Hussein, a co-chair of the Equality for Eid Coalition who said she began pushing for a Muslim school holiday two decades ago. “I cannot wait to see the children, the students in the classrooms, being happy and thankful for this day.”
During the board’s discussion, several members said it was time to act on the Muslim holiday request, even as the district continues to work on related issues of implementation.
“I’m really concerned that we are putting ourselves in a place that we give lip service to the diversity we have in this incredible community that we live in and serve, but in fact the most important things are the actions that we take,” said school board member Christopher S. Barclay, who offered the proposal.
Board member Jill Ortman-Fouse and others spoke of how long the matter has been under discussion. “It’s an issue of fairness,” she said. “I get off for all of my holidays. . . . Obviously it’s an issue of respect for members of our community who are very dedicated to our county and a very important part of our school system.”
Many of the more than two dozen members of the Muslim community who attended the board meeting Tuesday praised the outcome.
“It’s huge,” said Saqib Ali, a former state lawmaker who has been a leader of the effort. Without the change, he said, “my daughters are not equal to all of their little playmates in the neighborhood, their Christian friends, their Jewish friends. Who could be against equality?”
Ali said he thinks the decision would touch off change in other school systems; New York City began giving students Muslim holidays off this year. “I think the fact that New York granted this helped the effort here, and I don’t think it’s going to stop here,” he said.
A board majority approved the measure even though it was not possible to be certain when Eid al-Adha will fall in 2016. Two board members — Patricia O’Neill and Philip Kauffman — voted against the measure. Both cited concerns from principals and said the state’s calendar identifies Sept. 11, a Sunday, as Eid al-Adha in 2016. They said it was unclear how the time would be made up, with O’Neill raising the possibility that the school year might then end on a Monday. Kauffman said he would prefer that a clear plan be made for next school year.
District staff members are expected to come back to the board with a proposal for which professional workday would be switched to Sept. 12 to accommodate the holiday. Montgomery has five teacher workdays before the school year begins and four other professional days during the year.
Shahnaz Baten, a Potomac mother of two grown children, said she is proud to live in a place with elected leaders who value diversity, so that “you can see it in what they do, not only for Muslims but for a lot of people.”
Another Muslim parent, Ali Nawaz Memon of Gaithersburg, now a grandparent, said he was “delighted” that students next year will not have to choose between staying home to celebrate the holiday and attending school on Eid al-Adha to keep up with their studies. “I am very happy,” he said. “This struggle has been going on for many years.”