Montgomery County leaders gave their tentative approval this week to the school district’s first policy to guide calendar decisions, a hot-button issue in recent years as Muslim leaders have asked that schools be closed on at least one of their faith’s two major holidays.
Much of the Board of Education’s discussion focused on when school closings are warranted. Montgomery officials have long emphasized that the law prohibits them from closing schools for religious occasions; they can schedule school closures only when there are operational reasons, such as high absenteeism.
The proposed policy continued with that thinking and gave the example of classes possibly being canceled when more than 15 percent of students and staff are expected to be absent districtwide or at a substantial portion of schools. Such absenteeism, for example, would be expected on Christmas Day or Easter.
Board member Christopher S. Barclay (4th District) said such a percentage could appear unreachably high for some in the community, given Montgomery’s diversity, akin to asking voters years ago to pay a fee they could not afford in order to cast a ballot.
“This feels like a poll tax,” he said. “It feels like we have created the bar to make sure it ain’t gonna happen. Not to create the bar that says, ‘Oh, okay, if we get to this place, this is how we do this.’ ”
Others on the board also questioned the 15 percent reference. Jill Ortman-Fouse (At Large) said she understood that the number was included as an example but felt that “it gives the impression that that is a line that is going to be drawn.”
The board unanimously approved the policy without such a numerical reference — a decision welcomed by leaders in the county’s Equality for Eid Coalition, which has advocated for families who celebrate the Islamic holy days of Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr.
“I think it’s positive that they’ve created a policy and removed what would have been thought of as a threshold and would have been an unreasonably high threshold,” said Saqib Ali, a former state lawmaker and a co-chair of the Eid coalition.
Ali said he also was encouraged by the board’s broader conversation.
“I was really surprised and very pleased by the tone of the discussion and the substance of the discussion and a clear intent by many on the school board to find a way to legally close schools on Eid,” he said.
By state law, Montgomery schools are closed on major Christian holidays, with no classes from Christmas Eve to Jan. 1 and from the Friday before Easter to the Monday afterward. Since the 1970s, the district also has closed schools on the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
While the Muslim community has argued that the issue is a matter of fairness, school board members have stressed that, under the law, they can close schools only for secular reasons, such as high absentee rates that would affect district operations.
In keeping with that idea, the new policy says school closings on holidays or other days may be warranted when they are instituted to foster educational interests or operational needs.
Board members have said that high levels of absences in the 1970s led to closings for the two Jewish holidays. A 1973 document indicated that 15 percent or more of students and staff were absent on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.
But the board’s conversation this week touched in part on how much Montgomery has changed over the years.
In the early 1970s, the county’s student enrollment was 90 percent white. Now it’s 31 percent white, 28 percent Hispanic, 22 percent black and 14 percent Asian, according to the most recent figures.
The school system does not — and cannot — ask about students’ religions, officials say.
“Are we comfortable with a 40-year-old rationale . . . where certain religious groups have kind of gotten in under the wire, and others, you’re going to have to find another way to do it?” asked the board’s vice president, Michael A. Durso (5th District).
School administrators say it is impossible to tell how high absences by students and staff would be on Jewish holidays without opening schools on Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah to test the question.
“I do not believe that when you’ve had something for 40 years that you can take it away,” said the school board’s president, Patricia O’Neill, who also said she would not support opening on Jewish holidays to test absentee rates. “I think it’s been there, and I think that if for some reason the board decided that we’re closing for Eid or for Diwali or for Lunar New Year, then once you make that decision, it’s a go-forward.”
The district is taking public comments on the calendar policy until Oct. 9 and will consider next year’s calendar at a board meeting in November. In the next school year, the Eid holidays do not fall on school days.
Barclay said he was pleased with the board’s decision to strike the 15 percent reference in the policy. At the meeting, he noted a school board committee report from Baltimore County that left open the possibility of scheduling a teachers’ professional day to coincide with a Muslim holiday.
Barclay said Baltimore County’s idea seemed to be in the spirit of “how to get to yes.”
“That, I believe, is more of what we need to be doing,” he said.