When her daughters were children, Khadija Athman packed the major Islamic holidays, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, with celebration.
They opened gifts and covered their hands in henna. After prayer, they had breakfast at a pancake house before spending the day at the movies and Chuck E. Cheese’s.
“Eid is like our Christmas,” Athman said, her face brightening as she recalled the family’s traditions. “I grew up . . . being so excited about Eid, and I wanted to raise my kids with that same excitement.”
But for her daughters, the warm memories faded each time schoolmates in Prince William County, in suburban Northern Virginia, were awarded perfect-attendance certificates. The honor eluded Athman's daughters, Nusaybah and Sumayyah, who were resentful because they missed school each year for the Muslim holidays, their mother said.
Muslim and Jewish students in Fairfax and Prince William counties have long had to decide whether to observe a religious holiday or attend school, a choice some parents and students say they shouldn’t have to make.
It’s a struggle diverse communities throughout the country have encountered as they seek to accommodate students from different religious backgrounds.
In some cases, students feel they are compelled to choose between faith and school. “They don’t want to observe the holiday with their family because they don’t want to miss school,” said Meryl Paskow, a volunteer with the interfaith group Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement.
Earlier this year, the interfaith group persuaded school leaders in Northern Virginia to be more forgiving of students who miss tests because of a religious holiday. The Fairfax and Prince William superintendents agreed to keep tests and major school events from falling the day before or after major Muslim and Jewish holidays, but school remains in session on those holidays.
The change brings the two Northern Virginia school districts in closer alignment with other diverse school systems in the country, including several in Maryland, New York and New Jersey.
In Prince William, school absences for religious holidays are no longer counted against a student’s attendance record. That option would have provided Athman relief years ago.
“I want them to be proud of their heritage, to be proud of their religion,” the mother said. “It feels more like a competition when it shouldn’t be a competition. You should be able to practice your religion without having to compete with school.”
More than a year ago, the interfaith group — which addresses issues including affordable housing, health care and immigrant rights — adopted school religious holidays as a cause.
“These are great students,” said Rabbi Michael G. Holzman, with the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation. “They don’t want to miss a test.”
The interfaith group made a request — no tests, major assignments or school events on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the first night of Passover, as well as Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.
They delivered the request to Steven Lockard, then interim superintendent in Fairfax, and Steven Walts, superintendent in Prince William.
Fairfax teachers were directed not to schedule tests on certain religious holidays, and the district sends principals quarterly reminders, district spokesman John Torre said in an email. In Prince William, school district regulations were updated during the summer to say that students who miss school for religious observances would be allowed to make up work and tests.
Some school districts elsewhere in the country have made religious accommodations for decades by giving students the holiday off or excusing absences.
In New York, schoolchildren have been given Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur off since the 1960s, school district spokesman Michael Aciman said in an email. Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha were added in the 2015-2016 school year.
“These school holidays help ensure that a significant number of NYC families and staff do not have to choose between observing a religious holiday and attending school,” Aciman said.
In Paterson, N.J., schools close for only one holiday for each major religion, schools spokeswoman Terry Corallo said in an email. For example, students have class off for only one of the Eid holidays, a decision the district makes in consultation with faith leaders.
Closing for all religious holidays would prevent the racially diverse district of about 28,000 students from reaching the number of school days mandated by the state, she said.
Montgomery County schools, in suburban Maryland, are closed on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah and, after years of lobbying from local proponents, the school board voted in 2015 to give students the day off on Eid al-Adha. About the same time, Howard County Public Schools in Maryland added days off on Eid al-Adha, the eve of Lunar New Year and the Hindu holiday of Diwali.
Rabbi Ronald Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said school systems in communities with large Jewish populations generally show a greater sensitivity to the holidays.
The Jewish population in Fairfax, he said, has grown substantially in the past two decades. If the school system examined the number of Muslim and Jewish students, Halber said, "they might be surprised."
Despite the commitments in Northern Virginia, leaders with the interfaith group are not convinced that all teachers are following the directives. Students at Holzman's congregation in Reston reported that they had academic conflicts on Rosh Hashanah earlier this school year, as they had previously, he said.
“I thoroughly believe that our leaders at the county level are committed to solving these problems,” he said. “I also thoroughly believe that the message is not getting to the classroom level.”
Eli Sporn, 16, notches nearly straight As. He’s enrolled in Advanced Placement and honors classes at McLean High School, plays soccer and basketball, and participates in theater.
He also spends time Sunday mornings as a teacher's assistant at Temple Rodef Shalom and belongs to its youth group.
Each year, he misses school for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. His teachers are understanding, but the specter of schoolwork still looms.
“It kind of hangs over your head the entire time. It’s like: ‘Oh, no. I’m missing something,’ ” the sophomore said from his dining room table one weekday afternoon before Thanksgiving, his advanced pre-calculus homework nearby.
His mother, Melissa Sporn, added: “We think it’s obligatory. It’s part of being Jewish.”
Before she graduated from Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Hanan Seid would be seized by a familiar anxiety as she approached teachers each year for permission to make up assignments or tests that fell on Eid. Seid has always prioritized her faith, but that did little to ease the worry of having to ask teachers for accommodations.
“You’re asking a teacher not to give you a test. You’re not sick,” Seid said. “For kids sometimes, [it feels] like they’re asking for too much.”
Seid said she attended school once on Eid al-Adha, known as the festival of sacrifice, because she had a test. Dressed in full makeup and an abaya — a loose-fitting cloak — she felt out of place.
“It was the oddest feeling, because it doesn’t feel like it’s your holiday,” said Seid, who works at Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center, a mosque in Falls Church.
School districts should go further, she said, and give students the day off on religious holidays. During Christmastime, she said, “you can feel the spirit in this country” — not so for Muslim holidays.
To her, having the day off would symbolize a broader acceptance of Islam.
It would convey the message, Seid said, that “they do like us here. They do understand. They do accept us, and they’re willing to learn.”