No More Holiday Labels On MCPS Calendar, Though Holiday Closures Will Remain

No More Holiday Labels On MCPS Calendar, Though Holiday Closures Will Remain

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There will be no mention of Christmas, Rosh Hashanah or any other religious holiday on next school year’s MCPS calendar, despite the fact that students and teachers will still have no school on those days.

The county’s Board of Education debated the issue at its regular meeting on Tuesday.

BOE Member Rebecca Smondrowski recommended taking all holiday names off the school calendar — adding to Superintendent Joshua Starr’s recommendation of taking off the names of Jewish holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

At issue was how to treat the holidays in light of protests from some in the county’s Muslim community who are calling for the school system to close on Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

MCPS has so far said not enough students and teachers are absent from schools on those holidays to justify closing.

At the Board meeting on Tuesday, the school system’s lawyer made it clear that MCPS cannot close simply because it is the day of a religious holiday, but only because of operational reasons — such as high absenteeism due to the school system’s many Jewish or Christian students and staff.

Largely missing from the debate were any solid numbers on what the absentee rates would be on any of the Jewish or Christian holidays.

MCPS officials said there were observed absenteeism rates of about 15 percent on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, before the school system decided to close for those holidays in the 1970s. They also added that studying students’ religious preferences would present another problem, as MCPS can’t legally ask anyone to identify their religion.

“It is not open to us to do this as a token of appreciation. We can’t just do it because it’s a holiday,” said BOE Member Shirley Brandman. “I disagree with those who say taking the names off means nothing. It is us trying to clarify that the basis of our decision is the proper basis that is [legally] open to us.

“We recognize that we have a growing Muslim community,” Brandman said. “We must continue to monitor the impact on our schools.”

Board members promised to look at the situation more deeply, perhaps setting up actual parameters for no school days on religious holidays. Smondrowski said it troubles her that though MCPS grants excused absences for those who miss school for religious reasons, those excused absences still count against a student’s “perfect attendance” record.

During the 2015-2016 school year, the school break around Christmas will be known as “Winter Break,” and the school break around Easter will be known as “Spring Break,” based on the calendar of the nearby Fairfax County school system.

Board Member Michael Durso was the lone member to oppose the move.

“I just don’t think that the average person sees this as religious-neutral. I think it’d be interesting to actually see those [absentee numbers] for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” Durso said. “It’s as if our Muslim community is being penalized for having their kids not skip school.

“What does high absenteeism mean? How high is high,” Durso asked.

Board member Judy Docca said she taught in MCPS in the 1970s and remembers that it was difficult to find enough substitute teachers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Board member Chris Barclay characterized the concept of omitting holiday names as “kicking the can down the road,” and said MCPS must look deeper into the effect of having school on the Muslim holidays.

“This is conceivably, a no-win situation across the board,” Smondrowski said. “I’m saddened by the idea that anyone would think that in trying to be equitable for all that I would not be appreciative of any one group’s faith or religion or anyone would think of this in any way as a sign of disrespect, because it’s not.”

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