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FCPS proposes adding more religious occasions as holidays for students, staff

Fairfax County school bus

The Fairfax County School Board is looking at adding more holidays, including Diwali and Yom Kippur, to a proposed calendar for the upcoming 2022-2023 school year.

The board reviewed a proposed calendar from Fairfax County Public Schools staff during a work session yesterday (Tuesday), with a vote on the matter scheduled for their next regular meeting on Jan. 27.

The proposed 14-holiday schedule would begin July 1 and have a two-week winter break, one-week spring break, and days off for students through professional work days. It would mirror neighboring school districts’ holidays, a staff presentation showed.

FCPS staff recommended adding Diwali and Yom Kippur as full holidays with Rosh Hashanah as a day off for students. Staff would have the option to use it for professional development or also take the day off at their own discretion.

The proposed calendar includes an observance of Eid al-Fitr in 2023, even though it falls outside of school hours. The Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan will begin at sundown on Friday, April 21 to sundown on Saturday, April 22 next year.

FCPS is officially observing those four holidays for the first time this academic year, but the school board stopped short of granting students days off.

Last year’s calendar development proved unusually tense, with numerous residents voicing concerns about the process and local religious leaders expressing disappointment from a diversity standpoint.

Superintendent Scott Brabrand said yesterday that he accepted responsibility for a calendar process last year that was divisive and hurtful but added that he thought the calendar process this year was enhanced. 

It is complex. There’s no perfect calendar process. I think this process was better than the process we had before,” Brabrand said.

This time around, FCPS enlisted a calendar committee, consisting of school staff, students, parents and associations, to weigh in on the changes. FCPS Chief Operating Officer Marty Smith said several faith-based groups were invited, but not all chose to participate.

School board members wondered whether staff assigned different weights for priorities identified through a community input process that included surveying staff, students, and families. Brabrand said the proposal wasn’t a formula, but the staff’s best solution.

Despite a nearly two-hour long work session, school board members called for clearer justification from staff regarding which holidays will be recognized and adding Veterans Day as a day off for students.

“We want for this to not come across as arbitrary to our community, that people can take a look at the same data and kind of come close to the same conclusion,” Mason District Representative Ricardy Anderson said.

School board members suggested that the survey feedback wasn’t incorporated as well as it could have been.

Guided by U.S. Supreme Court rulings throughout the last century, public school holidays for religious occasions must be justified with a secular reason, such as high absence rates.

Mount Vernon District Representative Karen Corbett-Sanders said the proposed calendar was driven by FCPS’ operational needs, not one that reflects community feedback.

“We need to work on this calendar more to ensure that that has that mutual respect and inclusivity of all in it,” she said.

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