Maryland’s Howard County Board of Education has unanimously voted to add Muslim, Hindu, and Asian holidays as days in which students will be off.
“This vote is proof that it is indeed possible to accommodate the religious needs of multiple faith communities in diverse school districts,” said Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Maryland Outreach Manager Zainab Chaudry. “Religious pluralism is the hallmark of an integrated and inclusive society. We see that reflected in the Howard County Board of Education’s decision.”
CAIR is an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation terror financing trial, and a designated terror organization in the United Arab Emirates.
“I am extremely pleased by the Board’s ability to discuss and unanimously agree to seek ways to recognize the diverse backgrounds of Howard County’s students and families,” said board of education chairwoman Christine O’Connor. “We want to do our best to find flexibility within the calendar to provide opportunities for all students to experience all cultures within our community.”
The Baltimore Sun reports the school district has always closed schools on state-mandated holidays and on the Jewish holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. However, a recent proposal to keep schools open on the Jewish holidays and only allow school closures for those mandated by the state evoked significant public attention in December.
Several board members argued the county should be more inclusive of the religious beliefs and traditions of non-Judeo-Christian students.
“I strongly believe that our school calendar should be inclusive of the cultures and religions of all Howard County residents,” said board member Janet Siddiqui. “I moved here thirty years ago, because of the schools, but more because of the diversity. In a county where we pride ourselves on our diversity, we have to demonstrate that in terms of our actions.”
Muslim, Asian and Hindu community members have reportedly encouraged the inclusion of their religious holidays for several years.
In January of 2015, CAIR’s Chaudry expressed dismay that – in response to efforts to add a Muslim holiday to the school calendar – Howard County had proposed simply eliminating the names of all religious holidays on the calendar, and listing them instead in a side box.
“This wasn’t quite what we hoped for,” he said. “We were not seeking removal of references to existing religious holidays, even if they will be added in a box on the side of the calendar. We were simply requesting that the board include the Muslim holiday on the 2015-16 calendar along with the Jewish holiday that will take place on the same day.”
The current proposal’s approval will give Howard County students days off on Lunar New Year Eve, the Hindu holiday of Diwali, and the Muslim religious observance Eid al-Adha – either through school closings or teacher professional development days. Schools will continue to be closed on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.
Though both the county school board’s vice chairwoman Ellen Flynn Giles and board member Sandie French voted for the proposal, they raised concerns about adding school holidays without first collecting pertinent data and establishing a system for evaluating similar proposals.
Giles said she foresees even more requests for school holidays from other groups.
“We will find it very hard to manage that as more requests come forward,” she said. “We owe it to the community to establish a process by which we say, this is what we’re going to do.”
French cited the separation between church and state as the reason why holidays can only be given to students for logistical – and not religious – reasons.
“What I need to know is at what point, at what percentage of student absenteeism, is there a negative impact on our school system and therefore requires us to close schools for everyone,” French said. “What is that tipping point? And it’s changing. I think that we need to be more informed right now.”
In other Maryland counties, school boards have apparently attempted to appease Muslim parents who have complained the districts recognize major Christian and Jewish holidays but not those of the Muslim religion.
Montgomery County recently voted to give students a day off through a professional development day for teachers on Eid al-Adha, though its school district calendar does not mention the names of any religious holidays.
Similarly, in Fairfax County, the school district calendar does not mention religious holidays, but students have days off for “Winter Break” and “Spring Break.”
Schools in Anne Arundel County, however, scheduled classes on Rosh Hashanah in the coming academic year due to a need for more instruction time.
“These groups aren’t asking for an unreasonable amount of days off,” added Rachel Lin, the Howard County school board’s student member. “They just want one day to celebrate their family’s traditions. With the amount of schoolwork that students are getting in their classes, it’s difficult for students to want to miss a day of school. They might lose their traditions, because they are not able to celebrate.”
According to the news report, while the school district says it does not record the religious affiliations of its students, as of the 2014-2015 school year, 42 percent of Howard County students were white, 22 percent were black, 19 percent were Asian, 9 percent were Hispanic and 6 percent were of two or more races.
Board member Bess Altwerger said about the decision, “If people considered for a minute what it would be like to have to take a major exam or hand in a major project the day after Christmas, maybe you can begin to understand how difficult that would be for people who celebrate alternative holidays.”
“School is a place to foster well-rounded children who are proud of who they are, where they come from,” said Jean Xu, president of the Chinese American Parents Association. “School is also a place to raise future citizens who will contribute to this country as all-Americans when they grow up. A school system that recognizes and accommodates family traditions will certainly help achieving this goal in a diverse society.”