Standing in front of the Montgomery County Council Office Building in Rockville, Northwest High School senior Anhar Karim said he is one of many students in the county who have faced a hard decision related to two Muslim holidays.
Karim said that when a holiday conflicts with school, he can either celebrate and miss class or go to school and miss the celebration.
“We are forcing our students into an unreasonable decision,” said Karim, who is president of the Montgomery County Muslim Student Association.
Karim and other speakers urged Montgomery County Public Schools to close when classes fall on Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr during a Monday press conference held by the Maryland chapter of the Council of American Islamic Relations and the Equality for Eid Coalition.
Eid al-Adha celebrates sacrifice to God and falls on Oct. 15 this year. Eid al-Fitr marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan and was Aug. 8. The dates of the holidays change because of the Islam lunar calendar.
The coalition, which is sponsored by the council, formed about a year ago to pursue a long-standing goal for the school closures.
The speakers also called for school system students and staff to skip school on Oct. 15 and celebrate Eid al-Adha instead.
Zainab Chaudry — vice president of the council’s Maryland chapter and a co-chair of the coalition — said the initiative is not asking for special rights.
“We’re only asking for equal rights,” she said.
Montgomery County Councilman George Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park, another speaker at the press conference, said Muslim students and their families focused on academic achievement face a conflict their Christian and Jewish counterparts do not when it comes to holiday observance.
Leventhal said he would face the same conflict if county public schools did not close on some Jewish holidays.
“If school was in session on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, it would be a conflict,” said Leventhal, who later added his son will stay home on Oct. 15 in support of the initiative.
Samira Hussein, a co-chair of the coalition, said she wants to see the school system “respect the tradition and culture of every member of the community.”
“We’re tired of watching our kids forced to choose between their faith and education,” said Hussein, whose children went through the county school system and who has worked on the issue for decades.
Montgomery County Board of Education member Philip Kauffman (At-large) of Olney said in a recent interview that the school system can only close schools when it has evidence of student or staff absences high enough to impact instruction.
The school system will monitor absences this year, he said, though past studies in recent years have not indicated a “discernible trend.”
Schools close on Christian holidays such as Christmas and Good Friday under state law.
Chief Operating Officer Larry Bowers said the school system added Jewish holidays such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur based on low attendance from Jewish teachers and students on the holidays.
Since then, Bowers said, case law has arisen that lets districts close schools only for secular purposes.
The school system recognizes both Muslim holidays by declaring them nontesting days and giving Muslim students excused absences.
Samantha Kamal — a sophomore at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg and president of the school’s Muslim Student Association — said she stays home from school on the Eids and that most of her friends who celebrate the holidays choose the same.
Missing school results in “a ton of makeup work the next day,” said Kamal, who attended the conference with two friends.
Najwa Kareem of Gaithersburg said that when she was a student in the county school system, her parents let her and her siblings decide whether to go to school on the holidays or not.
Kareem said it was hard for her to miss class but that she felt guilty when she didn’t stay home with her family.
“I felt this feeling of unrest because this is my holiday,” she said.