Christmas and Easter have been stricken from next year's school calendar in Montgomery County. So have Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.
Montgomery's Board of Education voted 7 to 1 Tuesday to eliminate references to all religious holidays on the published calendar for 2015-2016, a decision that followed a request from Muslim community leaders to give equal billing to the Muslim holy day of Eid al-Adha.
In practical terms, Montgomery schools will still be closed for the Christian and Jewish holidays, as in previous years, and students will still get the same days off, as planned.
Board members said Tuesday that the new calendar will reflect days the state requires the system to be closed and that it will close on other days that have shown a high level of student and staff absenteeism. Though those days happen to coincide with major Christian and Jewish holidays, board members made clear that the days off are not meant to observe those religious holidays, which they say is not legally permitted.
The main and most noticeable difference will be that the published calendar will not mention any religious holidays by name.
Muslim community leaders have been asking Montgomery school officials for years to close schools for at least one of the two major Muslim holidays.
It is unclear how many Muslim students attend Montgomery schools, but in 2013, Muslim community leaders urged Muslim families and their supporters to keep students home for Eidal-Adha, hoping that the number of absentees would be persuasive as they made their case for a school closing. Montgomery school officials reported that absences for that day — 5.6 percent of students and 5 percent of teachers — were only somewhat higher than a comparable day the previous week.
Students who miss classes on religious holidays are given excused absences. But Muslim families have argued that students should not have to choose between their faith and their schoolwork and that missing even a day leaves many students behind. They say the day off is a matter of equity, with Christian and Jewish students getting days off for their holidays.
But Tuesday's outcome was not at all what Muslim leaders intended. They called the decision a surprise — and a glaring mistake.
"By stripping the names Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they have alienated other communities now, and we are no closer to equality," said Saqib Ali, a former Maryland state delegate and co-chair of the Equality for Eid Coalition. "It's a pretty drastic step, and they did it without any public notification."
Zainab Chaudry, also a co-chair of the coalition, expressed dismay, too, contending the school board's members were willing to "go so far as to paint themselves as the Grinch who stole Christmas" to avoid granting equal treatment for the Muslim holiday.
"They would remove the Christian holidays and they would remove the Jewish holidays from the calendar before they would consider adding the Muslim holiday to the calendar," she said.
Muslim leaders had focused their efforts for the next school year on having the holiday of Eidal-Adha recognized with equal prominence on the published school calendar because the holiday falls on the same day as Yom Kippur, when Montgomery schools are already closed. They had said the step was symbolic but important.
Superintendent Joshua P. Starr presented the board with three options to resolve the question Tuesday, and a majority of members supported his recommended proposal to do away with the names of both the Muslim and the Jewish holidays on the calendar. But amending the proposal, the board opted to ditch references to Christmas and Easter, too.
Board members pointed to the Fairfax County school system's calendar as an example; the largest school district in Virginia does not call out such religious holidays by name. In Montgomery, closing schools for Jewish holidays began in the 1970s. In voting to scrub the holiday names from the calendar, board members said they were trying to reflect the reason schools are closed on religious holidays: because of operational impacts — such as expected high absenteeism among students and staff on those days — not because the school system is observing a religious occasion.
"This seems the most equitable option," said board member Rebecca Smondrowski, who offered the amendment.
Board members talked at length about not wishing to disrespect the Muslim community or those from other faiths. Muslim community members and their supporters packed the meeting room.
Several board members pledged to produce a clearer standard for the kind of operational impacts that might lead to further consideration of closing schools on a Muslim holiday in the future. The calendar change Tuesday affects only the next school year.
Board member Michael A. Durso was the sole vote against the calendar change. During the board's discussion, he noted that Montgomery brags about its diversity and its embrace of different cultures. "No matter how well-intentioned we are, it comes off as insensitive" to Muslim families, he said.
School officials said the time off in December would become "winter break," while the time off around the Easter holiday would be called "spring break." Other days, such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, would be simply listed as a day when there is "no school for students and teachers."