There will be three religious holidays for which Montgomery County Public Schools will cancel classes this year: Rosh Hashanah, Christmas and Easter. Yom Kippur, which many MCPS students celebrated this week, began a half hour before sundown on Friday, thus forcing the rescheduling of several athletic and after-school events.
Yom Kippur calls for, among other things, a 12-hour fast to end on the following night. Jews believe it is a day of atonement for sin. When it falls on a school day, it is also a holiday for which MCPS will cancel classes.
But some community members are asking MCPS to recognize a similar religious holiday practiced by Muslims, though it's perhaps lesser known. It is Eid ul-Fitr, the end of the month-long period of fasting called Ramadan, which this year began at sunset on Sept. 12 and will continue until sunset on Oct 12.
During Ramadan, Muslims cannot have food during the daytime, so most wake up before dawn to eat and pray. Eid ul-Fitr, or Eid, is the celebration the day after Ramadan ends, commemorated by food, prayer and time at home with family.
"I know there is a large percentage of Muslims in school, and I know for a fact a lot of Muslims, especially kids who take AP classes, don't want to miss class," said Harris Akhtar, a senior at Seneca Valley High School who is Muslim. "At the same time they have this obligation to celebrate this day."
On Thursday, Akhtar and other members of the Muslim community, dressed in traditional Kufi (headwear) and Shalwar-Kameez (shirts), came to Quince Orchard High School for the first of two MCPS community forums this year to explain to the County Board of Education members what an important day Eid was for them.
"First of all not a lot of people know what Eid ul-Fitr is," Akhtar said. "Students know all about Jewish and Christian holidays, so if we get Eid off people will first be like, 'Woo-hoo!' But then they'll ask what the holiday is for."
Kate Harrison, a spokeswoman for MCPS, said that technically the County did not recognize religious holidays by canceling school for them.
"School is cancelled in recognition that there is a high rate of absenteeism among students and staff around a particular holiday," Harrison wrote via e-mail. "For example, Montgomery County Public Schools does not have school on Yom Kippur because so many staff members and students would be observing the holiday and thus be absent from school - in numbers that it would be difficult to carry on school operations ... The reason is not to observe the religious holiday."
But along those lines, Harrison said school systems could cancel class for many reasons if they wanted to.
"Sometimes school systems in Maryland cancel a school day for other occasions that result in high absenteeism," Harrison wrote. "For example, Alleghany County extends the Thanksgiving holiday through Monday, November 26, to include the start of deer hunting season due to high absenteeism."
Board member Christopher S. Barclay said he didn't feel comfortable commenting on Eid or requests to make it a school day off without further researching the matter.
"I don't think I can really have a comment on the issue," Barclay said. "I understand the issue on the surface but I can't say, 'Here's why I think this.' I think that's why you didn't see many Board members comment on it [on Thursday]."
Barclay added: "There are a lot of cultures in our school system, and we have to come up to speed and learn those religious practices. But I don't think its fair for us to make a comment on something like this."
Akhtar said school is stressful enough without having to fast for a month, and then miss class for religious purposes.
"A lot of kids begin the year and go straight into Ramadan," Akhtar said. "The beginning of school is always the most stressful time, and now you're not eating on top of it. It's really tough."