Montgomery Co. schools to close for Muslim holiday

WASHINGTON — After years of debate, the Montgomery County Public School system has decided to accommodate families who celebrate the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha by closing school for students on Sept. 12 of 2016.

The day could still be used as an in-service day for teachers — but those details have yet to be worked out.

The move came after school board member Christopher Barclay suggested the calendar change.

“We are putting ourselves in a place that we give lip service to the diversity that we have in this incredible community that we live in and serve — but in fact, the most important things are the actions that we take,” Barclay told his colleagues.

Interim School Superintendent Larry Bowers had originally suggested studying the question of scheduling professional and in-service days for teachers and how to accommodate the Muslim holiday further, but Barclay said, “I think we have an opportunity right here, right now.”

Montgomery County School Board President Patricia O’Neil was reluctant to make the change in the 2016 calendar, saying the Maryland State Board of Education calendar designated Sept. 11 — a Sunday — as Eid al-Adha, and that shifting other days in the school calendar could result in extending the end of the school year to a Monday.

“I’m not willing to do that,”  she said.

Board member Michael Durso said he was leaning toward Barclay’s move to accommodate Muslim families and noted what he detected as some reluctance by some of his colleagues.

“I seem to be interpreting the comments not so much as how this possibly could work, but why it will not work,” Durso said.

Making the change, said board member Jill Ortman-Fouse, is about fairness.

“I get all my holidays off,” she told the board.

She noted the debate had been going on for years.

“It’s an issue of respect for members of our community,” she said.

When the vote was taken, the board room, filled with interested parents, burst into applause. Just two board members, O’Nell and Phil Kauffman opposed making the change.

Outside the board meeting, Saqib Ali, a county resident and parent of daughters in the school system says the decision is about equality.

“I’m thrilled. Look, my daughters are now equal to everybody else — all their little playmates in the neighborhood — their Christian friends, their Jewish friends. Who could be against equality?”

Ali charged that the debate, which has been going on for years in the increasingly diverse county of more than 1 million people, was rooted in institutional racism, but he also congratulated the board for its final decision.

“They stood up for us. They fought for equality. They put their money where their mouth is and they did the right thing,” Ali said about Barclay, Durso and Ortman-Fouse.

Samira Hussein, a Muslim parent and longtime advocate for getting Eid recognized as a holiday, said the effort had been going on for decades. She noted a draft of the change she had from 1993.  But on Tuesday said expressed her happiness with the decision.

“I’m very happy. I’m in tears, I’m thrilled. I cannot wait to see the children in the classrooms being happy and thankful for this day.”

Like Hussein, Shahnaz Baten raised her children in Montgomery County and though they have graduated from Montgomery County schools, she said she’s thrilled by the change — and proud of the county she lives in. It’s a place she says, where diversity is valued and differences recognized “not just for Muslims, but for a lot of people.”

WTOP’s Kate Ryan contributed to this report.

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