Baltimore County schools to consider closing on Muslim holidays

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Will Baltimore County add Muslim holidays to school calendar?

After more than a decade of advocacy by the Muslim community, the Baltimore County school board appears poised to vote on whether to designate two Muslim holy days as school holidays.

A school board subcommittee is recommending the move, which has also been considered by other school systems around the state. The full board is expected to vote next month on the proposed policy that would close schools for up to two days a year.

If the policy passes, the school system would be the first in Maryland to close on the two most important Islamic holidays, Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr, when they fall on school days.

The vote will come after a 12-year effort by Dr. Bash Pharoan, a Muslim physician whose children attended county schools. He has spoken at nearly every meeting, requesting parity with Christian and Jewish students who get some of their religious holidays off.

The school board firmly denied his request just two years ago and said there were not enough Muslim students to warrant it. That sentiment seemed to shift this week when the school board's policy review committee chairwoman, Romaine Williams, said her committee will be recommending the full board take action in July.

"I believe it will pass," said Pharoan, who was asked to speak with the policy review committee several weeks ago.

Charles McDaniels Jr., chairman of the school board, would not speculate on whether the policy has enough support to pass. He said he wants to hear the committee's arguments in favor of the closings before he decides how to vote. To pass, the policy would need support from seven of the board's 12 members.

Two other Maryland school systems have been inching toward recognition of Muslim holidays. In the past year, Montgomery and Howard counties decided to move their professional development days for teachers to Eid al-Adha, the Muslim holiday that changes every year based on the lunar calendar.

Baltimore County's school board took a similar step in the past year and designated the holiday as a teacher training day. Baltimore County public school students will have Eid al-Adha off on Sept. 12 as result. New York City has also recently begun closing schools for the Muslim holy days.

Muslim parents who have advocated for the school closures over the years have argued they were in the untenable position of having to choose between allowing their children to observe important religious and cultural holidays and having them keep up with their classes.

Maryland's laws and regulations designate which holidays school systems must observe. Those holidays include Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter Friday. Local school systems are permitted to decide whether to close for Jewish holidays based on projected absenteeism. While Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard, Carroll and Harford counties close for two Jewish holidays, Baltimore City does not.

A federal appeals court ruling in 1999 said that school districts had a "plausible secular purpose" to close schools during religious holidays when there would be a high rate of absenteeism. The county has not documented a high absentee rate on the Muslim holidays.

Shahan Rizvi, president of the Howard County Muslim Council, worked with other faith leaders to have professional development days shifted to Muslim, Chinese and Hindu holidays on the Howard County school calendar.

The change, Rizvi said, is particularly important at a time of rising anti-Islamic sentiment. Just having the name of the holiday on the calendar, he said, prompts other students to ask what the holiday means and leads to conversations about different faiths.

"It creates a more diverse and inclusive mindset that can lead to better collaboration down the line."

McDaniels said the new policy "does need to be reviewed by the whole board," adding that he wants to make sure it conforms to Maryland law and "can be applied equitably through our system."

There are no estimates of the number of Muslim children in the Baltimore County school system because the county does not collect data on students' religion, but the number of Muslim residents in the county has been growing steadily, according to Muslim religious leaders. The Islamic Society of Baltimore, a mosque in Catonsville, typically draws 1,800 to 2,000 adults weekly.

Eid al-Adha, considered the holiest of the two days, is usually celebrated in the fall. This year, Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting, falls in early July. Over the next several years, only one of the holy days falls on a school day.

When the vote is taken, Pharoan said, he will be standing in the audience. If it passes, "I might faint," he said. "I probably will cry a little bit out of happiness."

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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