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Virginia’s largest school system votes down inclusion of non-Christian holidays

The school board of the largest school system in Virginia voted on Thursday against adding four minority faith holidays to the public school calendar. Despite a months-long campaign in Fairfax County by Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu community leaders, the new calendar — approved on a 7-5 vote — will not give students days off for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Diwali and Eid.

“We are very disappointed and pained by the school board’s decision last night,” Guila Franklin Siegel, the associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Washington said in an interview Friday. “The school board throughout this process has demonstrated complete lack of cultural competency and understanding of how our minority faiths practice our religions.”

For Siegel, the “process” started in 2019 when the school board formed a religious observance task force of minority faith leaders to address inequity in the school system. Rabbi Jessica Wainer, one of the task force’s members, previously told the Forward that she and her colleagues learned that year after year — from exams on Rosh Hashanah and field trips on Diwali, to homecoming on Eid and mandatory test prep on Yom Kippur — students were forced to make difficult choices between academic and religious obligations.

After a year of presentations and deliberations, the approximately 25-member task force presented two calendar options to the school board’s calendar committee, both of which suggested Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Diwali, and Eid as days off. Three neighboring districts have recently adopted some or all of these holidays as days off.

Fairfax County, located half an hour outside DC, is the 10th largest school system in the country and the largest in the state, serving 198 schools and 188,000 students. In recent years, the county’s Jewish and Muslim population have grown substantially, the former by 80% between 2003 and 2017, according to Siegel.

So the task force members felt blindsided when the school board introduced a different, third calendar option as the frontrunner in early February, and didn’t include any of the four suggested holidays. Almost 100 faith leaders signed a letter expressing “deep dismay,” and 431 students signed a petition calling for the days off.

Laura Jane Cohen, one of the school board members, had told the Forward that she and other representatives asked the superintendent to “go back to the drawing board,” and produce a calendar draft that included the religious minority holidays, while resolving outstanding concerns of unpaid days for low-wage workers like janitors and bus drivers.

The calendar that was ultimately produced took a different approach: Instead of giving the four holidays off, it marked 15 days on the school calendar with an “O,” for “religious and cultural observances.” Those 15 days would remain instructional school days, but the board voted to “recommend a regulation that would, in their minds, ensure that there are not tests or field trips, or other athletic activities, that happen on that day,” said Cohen, who voted against the calendar.

“Certainly this was not the intention from my colleagues, but the real impact that our community is feeling today is that they feel othered,” Cohen said in an interview Friday. “The real impact is that kids feel that they’re being punished for doing what their religion commands of them.”

For Siegel, the 15-day-observance rules “seem doomed to fail from the start.” The days marked as observance days themselves, to her, felt riddled with inconsistencies.

“For some reason, the last day of Passover is listed, which is so arbitrary and random,” she said. The first day of Passover, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, or Sukkot, in her mind, would have made for more logical days to mark with observance.

But both Cohen and Siegel found further fault with the current plan: It places the onus on students to take it up with the teachers or principals when enforcement fails.

“The idea that you want the students to be responsible for adults infringing on their rights is just unbelievable,” Cohen said. Looking forward, she explained, she will be looking to make sure that the consequences for violating the observance regulation are “spelled out” and “really tight.”

The silver lining for Siegel has been the interfaith community and support she has felt through this process, even as it grew contentious.

“The bright spot,” she said, “has been seeing how our communities have bonded together and the allyship we’ve received.”

Marie-Rose Sheinerman is a news intern at the Forward. Contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @RoseSheinerman.


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