Montgomery County Public Schools remove religious holiday names from school calendar

Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), located in Maryland, will no longer be naming any religious holidays on their school calendar. On Nov. 11, the Montgomery Board of Education voted 7 to 1 in favor of removing the holiday names for the 2015- 2016 school year.

The Montgomery Board of Education voted on this after members of the Muslim community asked for at least one of their religious holidays to be represented on the calendar. Next year, Eid al-Adha, a Muslim holiday, would fall on the same day as Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday.

“Regarding the calendar, the change was made by the Board of Education to recognize that the decision to close schools must—under federal and state law—be made for a secular or operational reason, such as high absenteeism of students and/or staff,” said Gboyinde Onijala, Senior Communications Specialist for MCPS. “MCPS cannot close for religious reasons.”

This was affirmed in a 1999 U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Case—Koenick v. Felton —and in 2005 by ADC Baltimore v. Baltimore County Board of Education, Onijala said. Koenick v. Felton involved the constitutionality of public schools providing holidays the Friday before Easter and the Monday after Easter, while ADC Baltimore v. Baltimore County Board of Education involved the exclusion of Muslim holidays.

For the 2015-2016 school year, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will be state public school holidays in Maryland, and all schools and offices will be closed on Christmas Eve, Christmas, the Friday before Easter and the Monday after Easter.

“Students who miss school to celebrate a holiday for which MCPS is not closed are granted an excused absence and are given an opportunity to make up any work,” Onijala said. “Major religious holidays on which MCPS schools are opened, such Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha and Lunar New Year, are designated ‘no testing days’ districtwide. Teachers are encouraged not have major tests or major project deadlines on such days.”

According to “The Washington Post,” MCPS school officials estimated approximately fifteen percent of the students are absent on Jewish holidays. However, MCPS doesn’t set a specific percentage needed to have a non-attendance day.

In Islam, the main holidays typically celebrated are Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha and Ramadan, which follow the lunar calendar, Shukran Amdeen ’16 said. Next year, Eid al-Adha will occur during the school year, while Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr will occur during the summer.

“At Stevenson, most Muslim students take the first day off, regardless of being Sunni or Shia,” Amdeen said.

While Ramadan follows a specific schedule and lasts for a month, the length of celebration for both Eids can vary, Amdeen said. However, in Pakistan, the students would have four days off for the celebration, Khansa Noor ’16 said.

The Stevenson school calendar recognizes Jewish holidays such as Yom Kippur on its calendar, and other state required holidays such as Veterans Day. Stevenson creates its school calendars in a three year cycle, in collaboration with the districts feeding into Stevenson, Principal Troy Gobble said. In the near future, Gobble doesn’t expect Stevenson will add holidays for different religions.

“In our attendance code, if a student misses school for a religious reason, it’s a fully excused absence,” Gobble said. “I don’t know if we have a big enough population in any religion that would drive [adding new holidays].”

Currently, MCPS has been receiving backlash for its decision to remove the religious holiday names from its calendar. The administrators and school board have received harsh emails and phone calls from people nationwide who are questioning the school board’s actions, some of which include threatening language and profanity.

“Adding a Muslim holiday to the school calendar could be a huge step in recognizing the Muslim population,” Amdeen said. “Not just in MCPS or Maryland, but the country itself.”