Muslim leaders in Montgomery County are calling for the school board to address issues of fairness that they say linger after a recent decision to strike the names of Christmas and other religious holidays from the school calendar.
They also say they are expanding their campaign to win equal recognition for Muslim holidays to neighboring school districts in Frederick and Howard counties.
The new efforts follow a Nov. 11 Montgomery school board decision to eliminate religious holiday names from the calendar while leaving the days off school intact. Muslim leaders had asked that the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha be given equal billing on the calendar with the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, saying that the two fall on the same day in 2015.
The board’s majority decided that the best option was to strip all religious holidays from the calendar, a move members said reflected that days off are granted because of state law or high absenteeism, not to recognize religious occasions.
The decision touched off a national backlash from people of many faiths. In Montgomery, leaders of the Equality for Eid Coalition, which made the calendar request, wrote to the school board, superintendent and hundreds of others.
“This was a terrible decision by the board that cemented the impression that MCPS is not even-handed in dealing with its Muslim community,” the group said, listing a series of questions about the broader issue of closing schools on a religious holiday.
Muslim students are allowed to take excused absences on holy days, but many say they fall behind in classes and should not be forced to choose between their faith and their education. They say the issue is a matter of equity, since schools are closed on some Christian and Jewish holidays.
In its e-mailed message, the group asked why there is not a baseline standard for granting a day off, why school officials rely on decades-old data to close schools for Rosh Hashanah, and why officials have estimated absenteeism at 15 percent on Jewish holidays without having specific student data for Yom Kippur.
The coalition also voiced concerns about teachers scheduling tests on Islamic holidays and about Muslim students being ineligible for perfect attendance awards if they stay home on their holidays.
“We think the school system has gotten a pass, and they haven’t had to answer these questions,” said Saqib Ali, a former state delegate and a coalition co-chair.
In Montgomery, several school board members contacted after the coalition’s e-mail was distributed said they plan to work on setting a standard for closing schools for operational reasons.
“I think that’s something we’re interested in pursuing,” said Phil Kauffman, president of the Montgomery County Board of Education.
School board member Rebecca Smondrowski said she would like to look beyond attendance to consider the number of students or school employees who are adversely affected when schools are open on their holidays. She also said she would like to see, when possible, students excused from schoolwork they miss on religious holidays.
Superintendent Joshua P. Starr’s staff is preparing a memo for the board on calendar-related issues. Montgomery school officials say they cannot decide to close schools for a religious holiday but instead must show high absenteeism or other operational effects occurring on the day. Figures on absenteeism tallied for Eid in 2013 showed absences only somewhat higher than on a comparable day the previous week, school officials said.
Dana Tofig, a spokesman for the school system, said the schools make provisions for students who are absent from school on religious holidays.
“With holidays like Eid, we do not have district-wide testing, and teachers are encouraged not to have tests on those days,” he said. Educators also make accommodations for school work due or assigned on such days, he said.
“We recognize this is not a perfect solution for the students or the families, but it is what we can do under the law,” he said.
Ali, of the Eid coalition, said Monday the group is expanding its efforts to neighboring counties that have not finalized school calendars for 2015.
“Montgomery County made a big mistake,” Ali said. “I think that Howard and Frederick should treat their residents of all faiths equally.”
Patricia O’Neill, vice president of the Montgomery school board, said that although she supports developing “a fair and clear standard” for closings, she took issue with the tone of some of the coalition’s e-mailed questions. She cited one that asked about absenteeism on Christmas and Good Friday, days off that are mandated under state law.
O’Neill and others also said the only way to gauge absenteeism on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah would be to open schools for those holidays to gather data, something that is not under consideration. “I personally have no interest in doing that,” O’Neill said.
A school district document from 1973 puts student and staff absences on the first day of Rosh Hashanah at about 15 percent, comparing that number to average yearly absences of about 8 percent for students and 6 percent for staff members at that time.
School board member Michael A. Durso said he hopes the coalition’s questions spark dialogue and become “a nice starting-off point toward reaching common ground.”
As the Eid coalition has posed questions about holiday-related closings, several in the Muslim community have noted that there is not agreement on the date of the Eid al-Adha, which is based on the lunar calendar.
“It’s a projection, and it could be one day off either way,” said Ziyad Motala, a Howard University law professor and Montgomery parent who recently wrote to school officials.
Hamza Khan, who has been active in the county’s Muslim community, which he calls “remarkably diverse,” suggested “a more inclusive dialogue” among Muslim residents about when holidays are celebrated.
Ali acknowledged differences on the issue but said that “for all practical purposes that I know of, Eid is going to be on September 23rd of 2015.”