Md. school system keeps Jewish holidays, adds days off for Diwali, Lunar New Year and Eid al-Adha

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Source: The Washington Post

Howard County’s school board voted unanimously this week to markedly expand its schedule of religious and cultural holidays, a decision members said recognized the growing diversity of the suburban Maryland school system.

Students will get days off next school year for two Jewish holy days, following a debate over whether to end the longtime practice. They also will be off for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, the eve of Lunar New Year and the Hindu holiday of Diwali.

The change came in a vote Thursday night as elected officials sought to be fair to a growing spectrum of groups that have asked for students to have time off with their families on major holidays.

“I strongly believe that our school calendar should be inclusive of cultures and religions of all of our Howard County residents,” said board member Janet Siddiqui, echoing many of her colleagues.

Howard’s action is likely to draw attention nationally as school systems struggle with how to create an inclusive school calendar — balancing fairness, logistics and legal constraints — as their communities grow more diverse and religious minorities become increasingly vocal.

“Once other communities see this school district has made this accommodation, they’re going to ask, ‘Why can’t we do it here?’ ” said Charles Haynes, founding director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, who said he expects the decision to have ripple effects.

The decision will be in effect for 2016-2017 while the school system studies the issue. Officials also plan to hire a firm to conduct a voluntary survey of religious preferences. The board asked district staff to report back with a range of options for how to implement the change.

School officials have long said that by law, they must have secular reasons for closing schools on religious holidays, such as expectations of high absenteeism. In deciding to close for the Jewish holidays in 1979, for example, Howard officials said that staff absentee rates of 12 percent were interfering with instruction.

The Montgomery County Board of Education recently moved a professional day to ensure that students would get a day off next fall for Eid al-Adha. But the decision in Howard goes further.

“This is really unprecedented,” commented Zainab Chaudry, a spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “We haven’t seen any school board vote to grant an accommodation to so many diverse faiths. It shows we don’t have to strip any religious group of their holiday in order to reach a compromise that’s fair to everyone.”

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