Debate Continues over Whether MCPS Should Close for Muslim Holiday

Debate Continues over Whether MCPS Should Close for Muslim Holiday

Board changes Inauguration Day policy, gets 12,000 calendar comments

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The Montgomery County Board of Education meets on Tuesday in Rockville.

Caitlynn Peetz

For the second consecutive meeting, Muslim students and community members urged the school board to close schools on the holiday of Eid next year.

Eid, celebrated in May, marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting. Proposals for the MCPS 2020-21 calendar do not show schools being closed on the holiday.

In the past, MCPS has closed its schools on the holiday for a “professional development day,” in which students do not report for class, but staff members work.

The problem next year, MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith said, is that national test dates overlap with the holiday.

The College Board, which oversees Advanced Placement (AP) tests, has set a two-week testing window that overlaps with Eid, which is on May 13, 2021. One make-up day is allotted for each test, Smith said.

If MCPS closed on Eid, students could not miss the makeup test day for any reason.

“What happens for students who are ill on that makeup day?” Smith asked. “That’s something to keep in mind. It’s a very, very complicated system.”

On Nov. 5, Smith and school board President Shebra Evans sent a letter urging The College Board to “strongly consider excluding” Eid as an AP administration date “to ensure all students have the equal opportunity to take the exam.”

MCPS has not received a response from The College Board, staff members said on Tuesday.

In an email to Bethesda Beat on Wednesday morning, a representative of The College Board wrote that “to support students observing Eid-al-Fitr, we’ll be administering all exams planned for May 13, 2021, again on Tuesday, May 18, 2021.” The full exam schedule will be posted in mid-December, the representative wrote.

The school board is scheduled to finalize the 2020-21 school calendar at a meeting Dec. 3.

Essie McGuire, executive director of the MCPS Office of the Chief Operating Officer, said the district could adopt its 2020-21 calendar and make changes later as the AP testing schedule becomes clearer.

Howard County Public Schools and Baltimore County Public Schools have adopted their academic calendars recognizing Eid, McGuire said. Both school districts are also awaiting guidance from The College Board about AP testing.

County Executive Marc Elrich and County Council Members Tom Hucker, Gabe Albornoz, Will Jawando and Hans Riemer wrote to the school board in favor of closing schools on the Eid holiday.

Imaan Shanavas, a senior at Poolesville High School, said it is the county’s “responsibility to protect the rights of all students, especially their freedom to practice religion.”

“While making the day of Eid an excused absence seems sufficient, it simply is not,” Shanavas said. “I know from firsthand experience, more students, especially those in high school, where even missing one day can set them back tremendously, are now coming to a point where they feel like they have to choose between their faith and their education. They shouldn’t have to do that, especially in a county as diverse and inclusive as Montgomery County.”

Public feedback about calendar options

In 2020, Labor Day is on Monday, Sept. 7. MCPS is considering beginning the school year on Aug. 31, Sept. 1 or Sept. 8.

If school starts after Labor Day, the academic year would end June 22. If it starts before the holiday, the school year would end June 17. Each calendar includes a week-long spring break.

In October, the three draft calendar scenarios were released to solicit public feedback.

MCPS received more than 12,000 comments through an online survey, according to MCPS staff members, the majority from parents.

Most commenters prefer starting school before Labor Day and closing schools for Inauguration Day, when the U.S. president is sworn in, according to MCPS.

Commenters voiced preferences for multiday breaks from classes, as opposed to sporadic single days off.

The school board also received a petition asking the school district to begin school in mid-August.

Inauguration Day policy change

In conjunction with its discussion about the next school year’s calendar, the school board voted to change a policy that previously mandated schools be closed in observance of Inauguration Day.

Inauguration Day falls on Jan. 20, 2021. The school district is closed two days earlier, a Monday, in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Some school board members and MCPS staff members argued that closing both days, and remaining open on Tuesday, would create an “awkward” schedule and possibly affect student attendance.

MCPS has been closed in recognition of three inaugurations, according to school board documents: twice for former President Barack Obama and once for President Donald Trump.

The school board received 33 comments from the public about the policy change. A summary of the comments, provided in school board documents, showed most commenters said they believe schools should be open on Inauguration Day or that the school board has discretion to close schools for the holiday.

The policy change was passed unanimously. Previously, some school board members argued it is “important for students to understand the importance of who is the president of the United States and to celebrate the election of whoever that person is.”

Board Vice President Pat O’Neill on Tuesday said students are more likely to watch the inauguration in school and learn more with the guidance of teachers and MCPS staff members.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

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