Fairfax County parents and interfaith communities demand school closures for major religious holidays

Should schools close for observance when it comes to celebrating certain religious holidays?

Parents of kids who are Hindu, Muslim or Jewish say, absolutely, and that’s a debate that’s coming to a head in Fairfax County.

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Parents and leaders of several religious communities have been wondering and debating why county public schools won’t give them the same privileges of closing their schools for observance of their holy days as they would for Christmas. 

"This is the time that the school board must face a choice, they must choose between including and more generalization of these communities, they have to choose between unity and division," said Srilekha Palle, an FCPS parent who is Hindu and observes Diwali. "Don’t divide the minority communities because we are very united and we look out for each other."

READ MORE: Fairfax County Public Schools plan for in-person learning 5 days a week this fall

Palle, along with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC) and other interfaith coalition partners, argue that the current calendar does not accurately represent the diversity that Fairfax County has.

They said that for years, members of minority faiths within FCPS have felt marginalized and disadvantaged because of their religious identity and observance. 

They said that students face review days or classroom tests on Diwali; assessment tests scheduled during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; and assignments due on or the day after Eid al-Fitr. Teachers and staff are forced to take personal days to observe or, worse, feel unable to take those days at all.

Several months ago, FCPS released two proposed calendar options for the 2021-2022 academic year.

Those included school closures on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Eid and Diwali.

But then the school board added a third calendar option, which does not include any of the four recommended closure days. And now, there is a fourth option introduced earlier this month which may or may not include these days off.

"The school system has already by its own admission, failed at implementing and consistently enforcing these regulations and we have no reason to believe that would change," said Guila Franklin Siegel, Associate Director at JCRC.

Siegel said that at least 1,000 Fairfax County residents have also emailed their school-board representatives demanding a calendar change. She noted that the Jewish population in northern Virginia, which includes Fairfax, had swelled by 80 percent between 2003 and 2017, and said that Hindu and Muslim populations in the district have "dramatically increased" as well."

"It is with extreme frustration that I feel like this is another example of where we cannot recognize what equity in practice really looks like," said Laura Jane Cohen, FCPS School Board Member in the Springfield District. 

Cohen said that while she supports the stance that many parents and the interfaith coalitions have taken, she does not expect the board’s expected Thursday night vote, to be in their favor. 

She said, it is likely that the calendar will remain the same but it doesn’t mean that the school board won’t visit the same topic for the 2022-2023 school calendar year.