The Fairfax County School Board is pitting minority groups against one another, sowing division and quashing efforts to provide equity for all. How did this well-meaning school board end up there?
In 2019, the Fairfax County Public School Board sought to address long-standing complaints from students, employees and families of minority faiths by creating an ad hoc Religious Observance Task Force. With representatives from other faiths, we met for many months to craft recommendations to help Fairfax County Public Schools strengthen religious accommodation practices, improve cultural competency and sensitivity and combat hate-based bullying.
At the top of our agenda was FCPS’s academic calendar, a document that reflects the values and character of any school district. The existing calendar exemplified an outdated image of a homogenous, White, Christian community. It gave no hint of the demographic changes in Northern Virginia that have yielded a remarkably racially, ethnically and religiously diverse student body.
For years, members of minority faiths within FCPS have felt marginalized and disadvantaged because of their religious identity and observance. Students face review days or classroom tests on Diwali; assessment tests scheduled during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; and assignments due on or the day after Eid al-Fitr. Teachers and staff are forced to take personal days to observe or, worse, feel unable to take those days at all.
The pressure on students and employees to forgo sacred observances is intense. The result is logistic, academic and emotional strain on students, families and educators.
Based on the recommendations of the Task Force, FCPS staff presented the Board with two calendar options for 2021-2022. Both introduced school closures on days coinciding with Eid, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Diwali. The options were widely publicized as the only ones under consideration, leading the community to understand that the four holidays would be included in the next academic calendar. For months, the board postponed its vote to adopt either calendar option. During this time, Arlington, Prince William and Loudoun counties all adopted more inclusive calendars that included some or all of these closures. In early February, the Fairfax school board — without any notice — added a third calendar for consideration. The new option does not include the four recommended closure days.
The school board justified its abrupt rejection of our task force’s recommendations by pointing to the pandemic. FCPS cannot address the needs of thousands of Jewish, Muslim and Hindu students, we were told, because adding school closures would undermine post-pandemic academic recovery. Board members were instructed to choose between academic equity and religious equity. There was no discussion of balancing both critical goals through offsetting days or other measures. And there was no recognition that many Muslim, Hindu and Jewish students are the very same Black, Brown, low-income and special needs students who have suffered the most during the pandemic.
As faith leaders devoted to uniting people in common purpose, we are deeply concerned about the board’s promotion of this dangerously divisive binary. In pitting the needs of one group of minority students against the needs of another, the school board is undercutting the core value embodied in its own social and racial equity policies and of One Fairfax: respecting and celebrating diverse identities to strengthen the fabric of our society.
Our faiths teach us to honor the inherent worth and dignity of each person and to embrace justice. The accommodations we seek for minority-faith students should not diminish critical efforts to assist students disproportionately harmed by systemic racism, poverty or other injustices. And they won’t. Granting four additional school closure days would have no practical impact on long-term academic recovery. It would, however, be a game-changer for FCPS students, employees and their families who have yearned for this change for so long.
The school board can fulfill its responsibilities to all of FCPS’s children without choosing between supporting religious equity and supporting academic equity. A viable solution to meet the needs of all affected communities was found in Arlington, Loudoun and Prince William counties, and one can be found in Fairfax as well.
School board members face a choice. They must choose between inclusion and marginalization; between equity and discrimination; between unity and division; and between progress and regression. We encourage the members of the school board make the right choice.