Schools confront question of adding or removing religious holidays from calendar

and Contact ReportersThe Baltimore Sun Media Group
Should schools add more religious holidays to accommodate different groups? Howard County confronts question.

A proposal to keep Howard County's public schools open on the two holiest days of the Jewish calendar is drawing opposition from minority faith groups, even as district officials say they're trying to be more inclusive, not less.

"The issue really is, how do we make sure we are accommodating every student and staff member, so they can observe their religious holidays consistently, with respect and across the board," said Ellen Flynn Giles, vice chairwoman of the Howard County school board.

But a board meeting this week on the proposal to keep schools open on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for the first time in 36 years drew 300 people of different ages, races and religions. Many expressed concern.

Brett Greenberger, a Jewish father of three, told the board he was "deeply saddened and disturbed" by the proposal.

"Our country and community is facing a crossroads where we either find solutions which support inclusive, safe places to raise our families and live — or where fear of others will fuel more discrimination and intolerance," he said. "We need to support our diverse community."

As communities grow more diverse, school districts across the state and country are confronting the question of whether to add more religious holidays to their academic calendars, or to strip them all out — leaving only the state and federal holidays, which include the Christian holiday of Christmas.

Most Baltimore-area districts, including Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties, close for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Baltimore City keeps schools open on those days, but allows students to take excused absences.

Anne Arundel County schools decided last month to hold classes on Rosh Hashanah next October. A district spokesman said the board needed to squeeze three more academic days into the 2016-2017 calendar. Officials chose to add one day at the beginning of the year, one at the end and hold classes on the Jewish new year.

The Montgomery County school board went in the other direction, agreeing last month to cancel classes on the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha next September and schedule a professional development day for staff.

Other area districts excuse Muslim students from attending school during the holiday.

The state requires public schools to close on certain days, including Christmas and Thanksgiving. Local systems can decide what additional days to shut down.

The First Amendment separation of church and state prohibits them from basing their choices on religion. But they can close on a religious holiday if they expect a large percentage of students and staff to be absent, or for another secular reason.

Giles, the Howard County school board member, said the proposal to hold class on the Jewish holidays was prompted by requests from a growing number of religious groups over the last several years.

A committee tasked with reviewing the school calendar proposed two options: the board could keep the current schedule, with days off on the Jewish holidays, or revert to only government-sanctioned holidays.

The second scenario would mean school days on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The district began closing school on those days in 1979, after officials found that 12 percent of teachers took them off to observe the holidays.

Giles said the board could decide to put off a decision and study other options. She said surveys and other research would be necessary to better understand the religious makeup of the district's students and faculty.

The calendar committee considered the possibility of building an additional 14 holidays into the schedule to accommodate multiple religious observations, Giles said. But that would extend the school year by three weeks.

The board is scheduled to decide on Jan. 14 what holidays to observe in the 2016-2017 academic calendar. Students can receive excused absences on religious holidays not included in the calendar, and teachers and coaches are asked not to schedule tests or significant events, such as concerts or sporting contests, on those days.

Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, said schools generally have added more holidays in recent decades.

"People in various religious groups are speaking up, and they want to be seen and heard," Haynes said. "Public schools are microcosms of the public square, and often the place where changes in religious dynamics are playing out."

The first school systems to confront the questions have been in large urban areas, where the debate has significant symbolic meaning and emotion for those involved, Haynes said.

"This has become a bit of a flash point in many communities," he said. "Some districts can look down the road and wonder, 'What are we going to do?'"

Christian traditions were built into academic schedules when public school systems were founded. Whether to accommodate additional religious observations into academic schedules varies across the country by region.

Richard Katskee, legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said being respectful to different people of faith doesn't necessarily translate into closing schools. The key, he said, is to recognize the need to accommodate different groups by not causing one group to miss crucial instruction time or hurting a child's chance at perfect attendance.

"There are enough faith groups with enough holidays, you could end up being closed all the time," Katskee said.

Both Haynes and Katskee said districts should start by seeking public input to find ways to be sensitive and respectful of all practices while allowing schools to function efficiently.

Zainab Chaudry, outreach manager for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Maryland, said the decision to close schools isn't a contest between religions. Her group is pushing for the Howard County board to keep schools closed on the Jewish holidays, and evaluate whether to add more holidays based on demographics.

The council led the charge in Montgomery County for the observance of Eid al-Adha, and is launching a similar campaign in Baltimore County.

Chaudry said careful deliberation is needed to make sure such decisions don't breed resentment among faith groups.

"Some of our strongest allies have been in the Jewish community," Chaudry said. "I understand the dilemma Howard County is facing. Our quest is to seek equality for the Muslim community. The last thing we want to do is take back accommodations for any other group."

Many who testified at the Howard County board meeting said the district has a chance to increase cultural awareness and inclusiveness by recognizing more holidays.

"What an opportunity for a teaching, learning moment, to celebrate and understand those facets that make up, not only Howard County, but our nation as well," said Stuart Berlin, president of the Columbia Jewish Congregation and a longtime educator. "With creativity and care, the school calendar could celebrate the diversity that we claim to have, and serve our students."

Third-grader Ryan Zhao observes the Lunar New Year.

"I am always jealous of my American friends because they can spend all of their holidays with their grandparents, but my community can't," Ryan said. "Lunar New Year lasts 15 days, but I'm not asking for 15 days — unless you're willing to give us 15 days. I'm only asking for one day so I can spend the holiday with my grandparents."

ywenger@baltsun.com

lphilip@baltsun.com

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