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Howard County adds Muslim, Hindu holidays to school calendar

Lisa Philip
Contact ReporterHoward County Times
"They just want one day to celebrate their family's traditions," Howard County student board member Rachel Lin

After considering how best to create an inclusive academic calendar — either by removing all but state-mandated public school holidays or by recognizing additional holidays — the Howard County Board of Education has voted to close schools for students on a Muslim and a Hindu holiday, for the first time in the school system's history.

"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 motion, which was proposed by board member Janet Siddiqui and voted for by all eight board members, will give students days off on Lunar New Year Eve, as is the case in the current year, but also the Hindu holiday of Diwali, and the Muslim religious observance, Eid al-Adha -- either through school closings or professional development days for teachers. Schools will continue to be closed on the two holiest days of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana.

"While I did not foresee a unanimous decision," said school board candidate Kirsten Coombs, "I am happy that everyone recognized the multiple cultures that make Howard County a special place."

"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 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."

Standing in for Superintendent Renee Foose at the board's meeting on Thursday night, Deputy Superintendent Linda Wise recommended a plan to close schools on state-mandated holidays and on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana, as it has done in years past — a recent proposal to close schools only on state-mandated holidays and therefore open schools on the two Jewish holidays for the first time in more than three decades drew over 300 people to a public hearing in December.

But several board members expressed the need for next year's academic calendar go beyond closing schools on the two Jewish holidays, to be more inclusive of the county's increasingly diverse population and to allow non-Judeo-Christian students to celebrate their religious and cultural traditions.

"These groups aren't asking for an unreasonable amount of days off. They just want one day to celebrate their family's traditions," said the board's student member, Rachel Lin, adding that the board received over 500 emails about the inclusion of more holidays on the calendar. "With the amount of school work 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."

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. The school system does not record the religious backgrounds of its students.

"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," said board member Bess Altwerger.

Many of the state-mandated school holidays fall on Christian holidays, such as Christmas and Easter. Local school systems determine additional days off.

"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."

Nearby Montgomery County's school board recently voted to place a professional development day for teachers on Eid al-Adha, to give students the day off. Anne Arundel schools went in the other direction and decided to hold classes on Rosh Hashana next year becauses the system needed more instruction time.

But Howard County board members said that observing cultural and religious holidays was just as important, if not more valuable, than curricular time for students.

"I encourage students to invite others to their holidays, so we can continue the learning process," said Siddiqui. "The key thing is that they’re spending time with their families, learning about their cultures with their families so that this can go on for generations and generations."

"I know people that have gone to the synagogue for Jewish celebrations on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana who aren’t Jewish, to learn about the culture and festivies with the day off," Lin said, "If we did have school those days, it would be basically a normal school day and nobody would care enough to research it."

Foose recommended that, before changing the school calendar, the board -- via an independent firm -- survey the community to determine the impact of student and staff absenteeism on days of religious and cultural observance, so that this data could be used to develop the 2017-2018 calendar. While Board members voted to move forward with this data collection, they also wanted to see more immediate change.

"I'll tell you what: Howard County is no longer majority Judeo-Christian. We are made up of all kinds of people," said school board member Ann De Lacy. "There is nothing to study in my opinion. It's either all or none. I cannot vote for anything that is not inclusive."

"My thought was that, going ahead and trying something next year will make the study richer and give us a better group of data points," said board member Cindy Vaillancourt. "And I think it's very clear that this is not from here until infinity and beyond, that this is something that we want to take care of. But let's try it."

Members of the East Asian, Muslim and Hindu communities have advocated for the inclusion of their religious holidays for at least the past two school years. Eid al-Adha, an important holiday on the Muslim calendar, and Diwali, equally as important for the Hindu community, have not previously been recognized on the county's school calendar.

"I think we've juggled with this over the years," Siddiqui said. "Now we have the opportunity to really show what Howard County is and how we respect diverse cultures and religions." 

Last year after hearing requests from the Chinese and Korean communities, the board voted to place a professional development day on the Lunar New Year in the 2015-2016 school year. But the superintendent's proposals for the 2016-2017 calendar did not include similar arrangements to give students the day off on Lunar New Year Eve (Lunar New Year will fall on a Saturday next year).

The board's vice chairwoman, Ellen Flynn Giles, and board member Sandie French brought up concerns about adding school holidays without first collecting data.

By granting days off for the three East Asian, Muslim and Hindu holidays, Flynn Giles said, the board would be opening itself up to more requests without a process for handling the requests.

"We will find it very hard to manage that as more requests come forward," she said. "We owe it to the community to establish process by which we say, this is what we're going to do."

Because of the need for separation between church and state, French said, holidays cannot be given to students for religious reasons, but rather must be given for logistical reasons. This requires more data, she said.

"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 1979, the county's school board voted to close schools on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana because approximately 12 percent of staff members were absent on those days.

Despite Flynn Giles's and French's concerns, the two voted in favor of placing student breaks on Diwali, Lunar New Year's Eve and Eid al-Adha in the 2016-2017 school year.

Now the calendar committee must develop plans for how to incorporate these holidays without impacting instruction time and without altering the start and end dates of the next school year.

In the meantime, different cultural groups that have advocated for including additional holidays have already responded to the board's decision on Thursday night.

"School is a place to foster well-rounded children who are proud of who they are, where they come from. School is also a place to raise future citizens who will contribute to this country as all-Americans when they grow up," Jean Xu, president of the Chinese American Parents Association, wrote in an email. "A school system that recognizes and accommodates family traditions will certainly help achieving this goal in a diverse society."

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