Asian, Muslim and Hindu holidays added to school calendars in Howard County, Maryland

The flag of Howard County, Maryland.

A Maryland county will allow Muslim and Hindu students a day off from school to celebrate Diwali and Eid al-Adha.

The Howard County Board of Education faced a tough decision: to foster inclusion by removing all religious holidays from the academic calender; Or add extra days to include non-Abrahamic celebrations.

A unanimous decision in favour of the latter will result in school closings or professional development days for staff in the 2016/17 academic year. The board also voted to allow staff to take a professional development day off for Lunar News Years Eve, after requests from the local Chinese and Korean communities. As it falls on a Saturday, students remain unaffected.

Schools in the county have shut during Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  But a recent motion threatened to end this  tradition. It proved controversial enough to attract more than 300 people to a public hearing in December.

State and federal laws prevent schools from closing on religious holidays (unless mandated otherwise). Adjusting academic calenders requires a secular reason. Baltimore County had recorded a large levels of absenteeism during these Jewish holidays.

Art Abramson, Executive Director of Baltimore’s Jewish Council, welcomed changes to academic calenders on the condition that students would avoid punishment if they took a day off for religious holidays. He had also noted how schools with large Jewish communities faced an added economic burden to open during holidays like Rosh Hashanah. So it required a discretionary approach for individual schools to open or close on such days. A point missing in Breitbart’s reporting.

This was the case when Anne Arundel County voted to keep schools open during Rosh Hashanah in the next academic year. A move that has not happened since 2003. Students could still celebrate the holiday with a day of absence, but staff could not take a day off.

Within this framework,  Howard County rejected this similar motion in favour of diversity.

The school system in the area does not count the religious affiliation of students, but it does for race. Howard County has 74 public schools that serve 51,366 students. Enrollment from black and Asian communities stands at 56 per cent. And the schools in Howard County have a greater diversity of students when compared to other parts of Missouri.

State-mandated holidays do fall on Christian holidays, like Christmas and Easter. Any decision to increase days off rests on the shoulders of local schools.

Last July, the Baltimore County Policy Review Committee recommended that schools not close during Eid. It did, however, stress that students and staff could take time off to celebrate Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. In nearby Montgomery County, the school board voted to allow students and staff to take a day off for Eid al-Adha.

A private firm surveys communities to gauge the impact cultural and religious holidays have on absenteeism levels. This information could help bring greater diversity to the academic calender in 2017/18.

The 2017-2018 Academic Calendar Committee has already begun to meet. And it includes representatives from the Jewish Federation of Howard County, the Howard County Muslim Council, the Hindu community, and the Chinese American Parent Association.

Students will begin the 2016/17 academic year on August 29. It ends on June 13, 2017.