Thursday, November 13, 2014

On taking Christmas off the school calendar -- Nov. 13, 2014 column


A Maryland school board could hardly have angered residents more had it abolished Christmas.

The Montgomery County Board of Education outside Washington didn’t scrap Christmas but it did vote Tuesday to eliminate any mention of Christmas and other religious holidays from next year’s official school calendar. 

Schools in Maryland’s largest county will still be closed as usual around Christmas, Easter and the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but students will be on Winter Break, Spring Break or the awkward “no school for students and teachers.”

The reaction on social media was swift and intense. Infuriating almost everybody was the board’s insistence that it was not closing the schools to observe religious holidays, which it said would be illegal, but as a practical, operational matter because of the high absenteeism that would result if school were held on those days.

The illegality argument is debatable. The state requires schools to be closed at Christmas and Easter, and the county has been closing school on Jewish holidays since the 1970s. It’s disingenuous and ridiculous to pretend schools are not closed so families can observe religious holidays. But which families and which holidays?

For years, local Muslim leaders have asked Montgomery schools to close for at least one Muslim holiday. To bolster their case, they’ve urged Muslim parents to keep their students home on Eid al-Adha, also called the Feast of Sacrifice.

Montgomery says absenteeism runs about 5 percent that day, a little higher than usual, but not high enough to justify closing the schools. Absences are excused, but Muslim families say fairness demands that Muslim holidays be recognized.

Asked again to add a Muslim holiday, the school board opted out, deciding instead to scrub all mention of religious holidays from the calendar.

“It makes no sense,” Saqib Ali, a former Maryland state legislator and co-chair of the Eid Coalition wrote on Facebook.  

“By stripping the names Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they have alienated other communities now, and we are no closer to equality,” he told The Washington Post.  

Board members said they meant no disrespect to any religion.

“No matter how well-intentioned we are, it comes off as insensitive” to Muslim families, said Michael A. Durso, the lone vote against the calendar change, the Post reported.

“Political correctness reaches a new level of absurdity,” one parent of former county students commented on Facebook. “Next thing you know they’ll change the name of Church Street in Rockville.”

This hullabaloo didn’t have to happen. Many school districts have already quit mentioning Christmas, Easter and the Jewish holidays on their official calendars – and it hasn’t caused a fuss. Baltimore city schools have Winter Holiday and Spring Break.

Montgomery County board members cited the example of Winter Break instead of Christmas Vacation in Fairfax County, Virginia’s largest school district. Fairfax’s Spring Break is March 30 through April 3 next year, and April 6 is a Student Holiday, a.k.a. elsewhere as Easter Monday.

The diverse Fairfax district also has an online combined calendar of religious events that teachers can consult in planning lessons. For example, Sikh Martyrdom Day is Nov. 24; Bodhi Day, a Buddhist celebration, and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in the Roman Catholic Church are Dec. 8.

A check of websites finds other Virginia districts that call their time off Winter and Spring Breaks include Richmond, Alexandria and Lynchburg. The school calendar in Bristol, Va., highlights Christmas programs, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day but doesn’t formally name the December vacation; Easter is mentioned as part of Spring Break. 

In Atlanta, the December holidays are called Semester Break.

Most people understand that schools cannot and should not favor one religion over another, and calling holidays Winter Break and Spring Break may make religious minorities feel more accepted, a worthy goal. It’s not as if anyone needs a school calendar to remind that it’s Christmas.

At the same time, not all districts are silent about Christmas. Dothan City Schools in Alabama have Christmas Break and schools are closed for Good Friday. And some districts are putting Christmas back into December.  

In 2006, Falcon School District northeast of Colorado Springs, Colo., returned to Christmas Break after receiving a letter from a religious rights group. In Woodbury, Tenn., the Cannon County Board of Education agreed in October 2013 to again call the December days off Christmas Break. 

When the school committee in Marshfield, Mass., a coastal town near Boston, changed the December calendar to Holiday Break, residents started a petition drive, demanding that Christmas Vacation be restored. More than 2,000 names have been collected.

Conservatives often rage against a War on Christmas. That’s silly, given the country’s obsession with the holiday. But we live in an age of silly political fights. A War on Winter Break could be next.

©2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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