Why NYC students will be getting Islamic holidays off this year

New York City public schools will now observe two major Muslim holidays. Is this a sustainable approach to religion within the education system?

Fahad Shadeed/Reuters/File
Men take part in Eid al-Fitr prayers in Diriyah, north of Riyadh, September 10, 2010.

Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that New York City public schools will observe two Islamic holidays, starting this year. Students will be given the day off on two Muslim holy days: Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

While the mayor said the policy is being created to reflect diversity in the city, critics of the plan are quick to question whether giving students more days off from school is the best decision.

Mr. de Blasio announced the new policy early Wednesday morning on Twitter.

According to The New York Times, there are an estimated 600,000 to 1 million Muslims living in New York City, with about 95 percent of Muslim children attending public schools. Overall, Muslim children make up about 10 percent of the New York City public school student body.

The addition of two Muslim holidays to the school calendar makes the NYC public school system the largest district in the country to observe the holidays, celebrated by millions of Muslims around the world. Multiple schools in New Jersey have observed the holidays for years. Waterbury Public Schools became the first school district in Connecticut to announce the observance of the Muslim holidays, which will begin this fall.

Many schools face pressure from the Muslim community to observe Islamic holidays in the same way the observe Christian and Jewish holidays. However, many schools feel that by closing school for more religious holidays, it takes students out of school when the vast majority are still able to attend.

In an effort to persuade Montgomery County schools in Maryland to close for Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, Muslim community leaders urged parents to keep their kids home on those holidays “because our children matter, too." However, the number of absences was only slightly higher than on a typical day.

In a 7 to 1 decision, the Montgomery County Board of Education opted to remove all religious holidays from the school’s official calendar, in a show of fairness. While Christmas would become “winter break” and Easter would become “spring break,” Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur would still be granted as days off, although purposely not listed as “holidays.” The board’s decision, which will be put in place for the 2015-2016 school year, only served to further frustrate the Muslim community.

"By stripping the names Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they have alienated other communities now, and we are no closer to equality," Saqib Ali, a former Maryland state delegate and co-chair of the Equality for Eid Coalition, told The Washington Post. "It’s a pretty drastic step, and they did it without any public notification."

Other major religions have also expressed concern and desire to have their holidays observed in official school calendars. Asian-Americans have long requested the observance of the Lunar New Year (mid-February), and Hindu populations push for their major festival, Diwali, to be recognized. New York state recently passed a bill allowing schools to recognize these holidays, although whether or not school is cancelled will be up to the city’s department of education.

With all of the possible religious holidays to observe – and the need to keep students in the classroom – assembling the school calendar can be a difficult task.

“We are committed to having a school calendar that reflects and honors the extraordinary diversity of our students,” New York Department of Education spokeswoman Yuridia Peña said of the new bill in a statement, reported in the Queens Chronicle. “Adding new holidays to the calendar is a goal that poses some logistical challenges and we are actively working toward overcoming them.”

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