By Sydney Engelhardt and Lauren McMillan
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writers
Baltimore County school children will not have to attend class on two Muslim holidays next year under a measure that was approved by the Board of Education Tuesday night.
Under the plan, the county’s professional development days will coincide with Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha during the 2016-2017 academic year so that Muslim children can celebrate the holidays without fear of missing class.
The board’s action comes in response to repeated requests over the years from the county’s Muslim community, which has argued that it is unfair that Jewish and Christian students get to have their holidays off but Muslim students must attend class during their religious celebrations.
“Doing this is a lot of progress in recognition of the Muslim holidays,” said board member Michael J. Collins. “I would prefer a policy that said if they (the holidays) ever occur, we will close the schools. I would like to see us do that one day, but I do think that this is a positive step.”
Nine of the 11 school board members supported the plan while one abstained and one, George J. Moniodis, voted no.
Moniodis said there are 276 religions in the county, adding that the Greek Orthodox population is larger than the Muslim community. He said that adding the holidays to the calendar would put too much stress on the school board.
Several members of the county’s Muslim community attended the meeting in hopes of getting the school day off for Muslim holidays.
“We have overflow the meeting here tonight asking you to send a message to the children of Baltimore county that they matter, all of them,” said Danette Mask, a Baltimore County weekend school teacher and member of the Muslim community. “Please show them that you are a rational, ethics-driven board, which rules constantly on principles of equality and practicality.”
Dr. Bash Pharoan, a Baltimore County surgeon who has been a leading proponent of closing the schools for the Muslim holidays for more than a decade, told the board that he does not understand why the school system closes on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah but does not close for Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.
“I ask you not to repeat the miserable past of separate but equal,” Pharoan said. He said he wanted the board “to amendment the current calendar to close the schools on Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha” just like the schools close on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.
“If you, for some reason, say no to my request,” Pharoan said, “I ask you to remove Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.”
Those who spoke said their main concern was that students miss school work to celebrate their holidays.
“Why am I as a Muslim having to sacrifice my education, while my fellow Christian and Jewish classmates get to spend holidays with their families without worry,” said Ahmed Nassar, a former student of the Baltimore County public school systems. “We only really, truly celebrate two holidays. We can’t even observe those without the fear of missing out on something.”
Another proponent of closing the schools, Danette Mask, said that a study from New York found that if the school system were to close for the two Muslim Eids a year, it would impact only nine school days over the next 20 years.
Eid al-Adha will come on Sept. 13, 2016 while Eid al-Fitr will be July 5, 2016.
“I have had to observe my classmate – Jewish, Christian or otherwise – get to observe their religious holidays while I had to sacrifice my grades and my education biannually,” Nassar said.
Elizabeth Smith, a weekend school teacher in Baltimore County, said that two-thirds of her Muslim students do not take off for Eid because they miss school work.
“What I am asking is one day and one thing only,” Pharoan said. “We as parents want our sons and daughter to grow up as equals to others. They should not be as second-class citizens. There is no reason for the board not closing on Muslim holidays.”
Board member Marisol A. Johnson thanked the Muslim community for coming out.
“This is a step in the right direction,” Johnson said. “We know that the Eid don’t fall on [a] school day right now. But in the future, we have discussed that if they do fall in the school year and we are still on the board with our superintendent, we would like to see that the schools be closed for professional development days for Eid.”