After more than a year of protests and urging from municipal government, the Jersey City Board of Education unanimously agreed on May 19 to establish a school holiday for the Muslim holy day of Eid.
Students of any faith can be excused from school for a religious observance. But many Muslim parents said students who take a day off when school is open often have to make up schoolwork assigned in their absence.
While board members at the time argued that policy was not to assign new work in classes on these days, many classes did.
Board of Education President Vidya Gangadin and Schools Superintendent Dr. Marcia Lyles supported the concept last year, but argued that the effort came too late in the school year to make the change.
The calendar issued last month for next year also failed to include Eid as a day when schools would close. However, Lyles said it was a draft that the board can modify.
Lyles pointed out that Eid is a lunar holiday, meaning that it falls on a different day in different parts of the world, and that the date in fall offered by those seeking the holiday actually fell on a day recognized in the Middle East as Eid. The holiday in the Eastern Time Zone fell a day later.
“Teachers will still be required to come in.” – Board member Gerald Lyons
This year, it will fall on Sept. 12.
Two big holidays, but only one falls during school
The second important holiday, Eid al-Fitr will fall June 26, 2017 after the end of school next year, so it did not become an issue in the upcoming school calendar.
The board agreed to set aside Sept. 12, but was conflicted over how to make up the day and still meet state requirements for a full educational year.
Two board members proposed doing away with Christopher Columbus Day as a holiday, noting that Columbus has become a controversial figure in recent times. Revised history tends to show Columbus’ abysmal record in regards to the treatment of Native Americans.
But several board members argued that Columbus Day is a holiday that is celebrated by many Italian-Americans and that it would be unfair to take away a holiday from one group to give to another. In the end, the board compromised and will make up the day using a professional development day for teachers.
“Teachers will still be required to come in,” said board member Gerald Lyons. “But students will be off.”
The number of Muslim students in the school district is uncertain, because census and other data keeps track of race but not religion.
“We do not know the Muslim student population,” organizers said in their petition to have the holiday assigned. “As Jersey City becomes one of the most diverse cities in the country, with 250,000 residents, 4.2 percent of the city’s religious adherents are Muslim. This growing Muslim population in Jersey City includes a significant Latino contingency as well as American, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and other Arab nationalities.”
In passing the resolution, the Jersey City public schools joined several other districts in New Jersey including Paterson, Trenton, and Atlantic City in closing their public schools for Eid.
Mayor Steven Fulop and Council President Rolando Lavarro both issued public statements last year in support of the move.
“Not closing the schools for the Muslim holiday is a missed opportunity,” Fulop said last fall when the board failed to act.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.