Faced with an issue that produced dissent among its members, the Howard County Board of Education Thursday voted, 5-3, to stop listing religious holidays on their dates on the school calendar.
Calling it an effort to achieve fairness, the board approved Superintendent Renee Foose's 2015-16 school calendar and added the stipulation that staff remove all names of religious holidays from the date boxes. They have asked the public information office to design a calendar that lists holidays in a separate box alongside the month in which they fall.
Board member Bess Altwerger said religious holidays need to be treated equally and either all listed within the calendar dates on which they fall or be highlighted on the page of each month.
"I think we need to address this issue of equity head-on and make sure that whatever we're doing, in terms of denoting a religious holiday, is equally and equitably applied to all religious holidays that our students, in this very diverse community, celebrate," she said.
Board members Sandie French, Christine O'Connor and Janet Siddiqui voted against the proposal.
O'Connor said she couldn't vote for a measure that pulls Christmas off of the December 25 date on the calendar. Siddiqui expressed caution because the board did not solicit committee or community input before voting.
The board's decision follows a request from the Equality for Eid Coalition to recognize Eid al-Adha on Sept. 23 along with Yom Kippur, when schools are already closed.
In November, the coalition had requested the Montgomery County Board of Education recognize Muslim holidays on its calendar. The Montgomery County board voted to remove all religious holiday names from its calendar in a decision that drew national attention.
The Howard County Public School System already lists religious holidays for Baha'i, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh faiths outside the calendar date and in boxes each month.
The holiday listings that will change are Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Instead, the calendar date will simply say "schools/offices closed."
The board tasked the school system's public information office to redesign the printed school calendar to recognize all holidays.
Saqib Ali, the co-chair of the Equality for Eid Coalition who previously spoke to the Howard school board about recognizing Eid al-Adha, said the board's decision Thursday was not his first preference, but he wasn't "furious" with the decision.
Ali believes the decision points to a catch-22 within the creation of school calendars. Once schools are closed for religious holidays, which they have been for decades, there's no way to track whether these days are justified by high absenteeism since students are not in school, he said.
"By using 38-year-old data, they're using data that undercounts racial minorities," Ali said.