One by one, Muslim parents and students took to the lectern of the Sewanhaka Central High School District board room last year to describe how difficult it was for them to celebrate the Eid holidays while also attending school, and to ask the Board of Education to include Muslim observances on future school calendars.
They were told that the board would consider the proposal when it finalized the 2020-21 school schedule, but the board soon had to focus its efforts on continuing education during a global pandemic, and the Muslim holidays were ultimately never added to the school calendars.
Now, those Muslim parents and students are renewing their calls for inclusion. They sent the board their thoughts on the matter in public-comment form for the October virtual Board of Education meeting, but were once again told that the board would not be making any decisions about the school calendar.
“They’re pretty much leaving us hanging,” said Farhana Islam, a New Hyde Park parent who is leading the effort to get the Eid holidays — Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr — recognized in the Central High School District.
Islam began petitioning the New Hyde Park-Garden City Park Union Free School District to add the two holidays — considered the most important days in the Islamic faith — to its calendars back in 2018, but the elementary school board tabled the request until more absences of Muslim students were recorded on those days.
Determining how many Muslim students live in a school district could be difficult, however, Islam said, because the U.S. Census does not ask residents about their faith, and many students who spoke at the school board meeting last year said they felt pressured to attend school on the holidays and miss out on their families’ festivities.
Rafia Ahmad, a student at New Hyde Park Memorial High School, for example, said she was forced to attend school on Eid one year, and was drowning in homework when she got home. And Wali Owais, a sophomore at Elmont Memorial High School, said he did not believe the district respected his religion the way it respected others, adding, “I believe that Muslim students have the right to follow their religion.”
Those who do take the day off may face repercussions, according to Floral Park Memorial High School student Rukshana Khan, who told the board last year that she once missed school to celebrate Eid, and spent two weeks trying to catch up on the work that she missed in her Advanced Placement classes. So, she said at the meeting last December, she had to beg her parents to let her go to school for a few hours on Eid the next year.
In response, then board President David Del Santo said the district had suspended testing on those days, and noted that district policy excuses absences for religious observances.
But, Islam said, more is needed, especially at a time when school districts throughout Long Island are promoting diversity. Valley Stream Elementary School District 24 officials, for example, recently adopted a new hiring initiative to diversify its staff, and the Elmont Union Free School District Board of Education adopted an anti-racism policy last month. It states that the district has a “responsibility to acknowledge that racism still may be embedded in our schools,” and the board must “stand committed to leading and advocating in ways which support and advance more equitable and inclusive educational environments, free of racism, where every student, teacher, staff, parent and community member is treated with dignity and respect.”
The Elmont district has already taken diversity into account in its book selection and lessons, board President Michael Jaime said, to be more representative of the student body, which is 41 percent Black, 30 percent Hispanic or Latino, 20 percent Asian or Pacific Islander and only 6 percent white. The district would leave it up to each school’s leadership to determine how they would implement the anti-racism policy, Jaime said, and ensure equity in the classrooms.
“It seems like a moment to kind of take advantage of,” Islam said of school districts’ move toward inclusion, adding that having the Sewanhaka district, one of the largest on Long Island, include Eid on the school holidays would “set the tone” for other districts to do the same.