Since 2016, Montgomery County, which has the state’s largest school system, has given students the day off in years when an Eid holiday falls on a school day.
But students would go to classes on the holy day next school year under three proposals released by Montgomery school officials — a possibility that sparked a wave of concern and frustration in the Muslim community.
“It’s very disappointing because we have been lobbying for so many years,” said Samira Hussein, a longtime activist on the issue.
School Board Vice President Patricia O’Neill said school system staff checked state and national testing schedules, and they did not include the time off for Eid because the holiday fell within a traditional AP testing window.
“This is a national issue,” she said, encouraging others to write to the College Board. “It doesn’t just affect Muslim students in Montgomery County. It affects Muslim students across the country.”
Following the school board vote last week, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a national Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization, weighed in with a similar request to the College Board, sending a letter Friday.
At least two other Maryland systems — in Howard and Baltimore counties — are considering proposals to place a professional day for teachers on the Eid holiday next school year, so that students can be off; Montgomery takes a similar approach.
In New York, the nation’s largest school system, public schools have designated days off on the Eid holidays since 2015. A spokeswoman said this week that she saw no sign that the practice would change. A 2020-2021 calendar has not yet been adopted, she said.
A College Board spokesman did not comment on the issue, but he said AP exam dates for 2021 would be published during the months ahead.
“As is standard, there will be options available to address conflicts should they arise,” spokesman Jerome White said.
The College Board, a nonprofit that also owns the SAT college entrance exam, contacted Muslim advocates Tuesday to discuss the issue, activists said. Montgomery school officials said their letter to the College Board went out Tuesday.
Late-testing options are typically available for students who cannot take AP exams on the scheduled date because of serious injuries, emergencies, religious holidays and other circumstances.
In Montgomery, the AP scheduling concern adds complexity to what many see as an issue of fairness.
Every year, school systems, including Montgomery’s, draw up academic calendars for the next year. After Montgomery released its proposals for the 2020-2021 school year, Muslim advocates turned out at a school board meeting Oct. 28 with signs saying “Equality for Eid” — a flashback to previous efforts to gain support for a day off school on an Islamic holy day. Eid al-Fitr is expected to fall on May 13, 2021.
“It came as a big surprise,” said Zainab Chaudry, director of Maryland outreach for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “It was a step backward.”
Many parents and advocates say Muslim students should be treated similarly to their peers of other faiths, and they emphasize the importance of religious observances and family celebrations.
Hass Bashir, a father of three from Potomac, asserted that Muslim families have had to repeatedly come “begging” for recognition of a holy day that more than 1.8 billion people celebrate globally.
“What are you teaching . . . about being inclusive?” Bashir asked. “While my children recognize all other holidays, you are telling them, ‘Your faith has no value. You are irrelevant.’ ”
Others described what students experience — and the holiday’s effect.
“Many Montgomery County Muslim children avoid discussing their religion because they fear the judgment and harassment that can ensue after that,” said Najiyah Khan, a mother of four and former PTA president who serves on the board of a Potomac mosque.
“The school observance of the Eid holiday is tremendously helpful in normalizing our religion,” she said.
Some said they wished Montgomery officials had pointed out the testing conflict earlier so they could have gone to the College Board months ago. They worry there is not enough time to persuade the College Board before school systems firm up 2020-2021 calendars.
“It’s a very tight window to reach out to the College Board at the national level and make that change,” said Adileh Sharieff, a county parent and a trustee at the Islamic Center of Maryland, a mosque in Gaithersburg.
School system officials say their three calendar proposals are draft documents that are a starting point, not a final decision. They have received several thousand comments on a variety of calendar-related issues, O’Neill said.
The county school board is expected to discuss the issue again next week and vote on a 2020-2021 calendar in early December.
The call for recognizing Muslim holidays goes back many years in the diverse Montgomery school system, with more than 165,000 students. Students have raised the issue, as have parents and community leaders.
In 2015, supporters claimed victory, as the school board voted to have a teacher professional day coincide with an Eid holy day for 2016, meaning students had the day off. The dates of Eid holidays, based on a lunar calendar, shift from year to year.
For years, Muslim families asked why other faiths got holidays off but not theirs.
Maryland state law requires schools to close on holidays such as Christmas and Good Friday but leaves other holidays and occasions, including Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, up to local officials.
Montgomery County officials began giving days off on the two Jewish holidays in the 1970s, saying high levels of absenteeism justified the closures as an operational matter; they say by law they cannot close schools specifically for religious reasons.
The school system at one point suggested absenteeism on Muslim holidays was not high enough to warrant closing schools. It is unclear how many Muslim students are enrolled in county schools — school officials do not query students about religion — but Muslim leaders describe their community as large and growing, based on involvement at area mosques.
Muslim students can take excused absences on holy days, but many families say students, especially those in high school, do not want to miss instruction or fall behind in classes. Some go to school despite holidays.
Over the years, Montgomery has been approached about time off for other holidays, including Lunar New Year, celebrated by many Asian families, and the Hindu holiday of Diwali.
Student Iman Ilias, a 10th-grader at Walt Whitman High School, said the issue goes beyond the time off. She recalled her disappointment that her Muslim peers did not want to join the Muslim Student Association, of which she is co-president.
Many Muslim students do not tell others about their faith “because being Muslim doesn’t feel normal to them; it’s not mainstream, and it sets them apart” from friends.
The disregard for Muslim holidays contributes to the problem, she said.
“It adds to the feeling that we’re different — that we’re not like everyone else,” the 15-year-old said. “Making the Muslim holiday of Eid off would make Muslim students feel included, normal and proud to be themselves.”