ELLICOTT CITY, Md. – A growing number of school districts are adding religious holidays to the school calendar to appease religious minorities, mostly Muslim families.
The Howard County School Board in suburban Baltimore this week added the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, as well as the Lunar New Year, the Hindu Kiwali holiday, as well as two Jewish holy days for next school year, the Baltimore Sun reports.
The move follows similar decisions by school officials in New York City, as well as numerous schools New Jersey and other states that are carving out days off for students to celebrate Muslim holidays to offer an “inclusive” learning environment, according to the Christian Science Monitor.
Maryland law requires schools to close on Christmas, Good Friday and Easter Monday, and the Howard County district added the Jewish holidays in 1979 because of high teacher absenteeism. But board vice-chairwoman Ellen Flynn Giles told The Washington Post Howard County schools have gotten more and more requests from Muslim, Hindu and East Asian parents to close schools for their holy days, so officials went through a series of proposals and public meetings in recent weeks to come to an agreement.
“The system looks very different than it did 36 years ago, and there have been increasing requests from other groups to have their religious holidays recognized in the same way,” she said.
“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,” board chairwoman Christine O’Connor told the Sun. “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 board’s unanimous vote at its Thursday board meeting means the district will recognize several Christian holidays, as well as a Muslim holy day, a Hindu holy day, and two Jewish holy days – Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana – by either closing schools or holding professional development days.
Rachel Lin, student board member, said the school board received over 500 emails about adding the new religious holidays to the calendar, though it’s unclear how many were in favor and how many opposed.
“These groups aren’t asking for an unreasonable amount of days off. They just want one day to celebrate their family’s traditions,” she said. “They might lose their traditions because they are not able to celebrate.”
Board member Bess Altwerger also advocated for the change.
“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,” Altwerger said, according to the Sun.
Some Howard County board members wanted to commission a study to better understand the community demographics, and how days off or not will might impact student attendance. The board voted to collect that data, but approved the new holidays regardless.
Other board members, like Giles, warned that approving more religious holidays off for students will likely be a slippery slope. She believes the board should develop a process for reviewing requests before approving more.
“We will find it very hard to manage that as more requests come forward,” she told the Sun.
After New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio added Muslim holidays and the Lunar New Year to the list of days off for students during current school year, he began to receive similar requests from Hindus and other religious groups.
This past summer, de Blasio announced that after adding the Muslim holidays, he’s closed the door on other religious holidays for “the foreseeable future,” the New York Post reports.