NEWARK — The largest public school district in Maryland raised quite a stir regionally and nationally last week when its Board of Education voted to scrub any references to religious holidays from its school calendar, but it appears at least locally the practice is already widely accepted.
Last week, the Montgomery County Board of Education voted to remove any references to religious holidays from its 2015-2016 calendar under pressure from the burgeoning Muslim in the county to add a pair of Islamic holidays to the schedule. Essentially, the Montgomery school board decided not to add the requested Muslim holidays and voted to remove all references to other religious holidays from its annual school calendar.
The decision garnered major media attention as many called it political correctness run amok, while others called for equality in the scheduling of off days in correlation with other religious holidays. Montgomery County’s school calendar for 2013-2014 included references to off days for Rosh Hashanah, Christmas and Easter, for example, but going forward those specific religious references will be scrubbed from the official calendar.
In a larger sense, it boils down to semantics somewhat. While the names Christmas and Easter will not appear on the school district’s calendar in the future, the schools will still be closed on the days surrounding those Christian holidays and will be referred to generically as Winter Break and Spring Break, for example.
It’s a widely accepted practice dictated by state law. The Maryland Code specifically dictates a period for public schools to be closed from Christmas Eve through Jan. 1. Similarly, state law requires public schools to be closed from the Friday before Easter to the Monday after Easter. State law does not require school districts to specifically reference the widely accepted religious holidays and most don’t, including Worcester and Wicomico on the Lower Shore.
For example, Worcester’s current public school calendar lists the period from Dec. 24 to Jan. 1 as winter holidays and the period from April 3 to April 6 as spring holidays. It’s widely known those dates coincide with traditional Christian holidays, which is largely by design. However, the Worcester County Public School system recognizes the diversity of its student body and does not specifically reference any religious holidays on its school calendar, according to Coordinator of Special Programs and Public Relations Barb Witherow.
“In addition to code compliance, our school system recognizes that our students and their families are diverse,” she said. “Religious holidays are just one area where diversity exists and sensitivity is important.”
Witherow said Worcester County Public Schools attempt to be cognizant of all religious holidays celebrated by its students, parents, teachers and staff and attempts to make accommodations for each of them.
“For example, in Worcester County Public Schools, schools are provided with a comprehensive list of religious holidays when they are scheduling their calendar of events for the school year,” she said. “This helps prevent conflicts between school events and various religious holidays, demonstrating a respect for the religious practices of all our families.”
Of course, private schools are not bound by state codes and are free to call school closing days by whatever they choose. Nonetheless, other than specific faith-based schools, most appear to follow the accepted state norms.
For example, Worcester Preparatory School, a private school where students are enrolled through a tuition fee schedule, calls its days off around Christmas and New Year’s as Winter Break, and the period around Easter as Spring Break. Curiously, the WPS school calendar specifically notes Good Friday as the designated off day. Of course, the Catholic school Most Blessed Sacrament, also private, does not tip-toe around any school closure names, specifically referencing Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and Easter, for example.
Nonetheless, the decision by Montgomery County last week to scrub any religious references from its calendar touched nerves for many for several reasons. Many lashed out at the Muslim community because its request to have its holy days recognized was the catalyst for the decision. The Muslim community was largely upset because while the names of the other religious holidays were semantically removed, they remained scheduled closed days for the public schools.
In a statement prepared by Montgomery County School Board members Phil Kauffman and Patricia O’Neill, the decision was defended as the right thing to do to attempt to make all happy.
“All the board’s vote did was to change the way those holidays are annotated in our calendar in order to eliminate the misconception that schools are closed for religious reasons,” the statement from Kauffman and O’Neill reads. “We cannot legally close schools on religious grounds. Furthermore, the board’s action is in line with what is done in many other large, diverse districts around the country.”
The statement also denounced any backlash directed at the Muslim community for forcing the decision.
“Finally, it is important to emphasize how strongly we condemn the outpouring of bigotry and hate toward the Muslim community that has been generated by our decision,” the statement reads. “As a board, we are united in respecting and appreciating the advocacy of our growing and vibrant Muslim community and we will continue to ensure that they and other groups feel safe and welcome in our schools.”