FAIRFIELD — After an outpouring of requests from the Muslim community, the Board of Education voted to approve the addition of Eid al-Fitr as a day off of school next year.
Eid al-Fitr, which is celebrated in the spring, marks the end of Ramadan, a month of fasting from sunrise to sunset in the Muslim calendar. The holiday will fall on April 10, 2023, and the district added an extra day in June to make up for the day off in April.
Muslim students, parents and teachers who spoke at a Board of Education meeting on Nov. 15 described Eid as a day of presents, feasting and spending time with family. But current and former students said that not having it as a recognized holiday left them in the difficult position of having to choose between celebrating with their families or coming to school so that they wouldn’t miss classwork or exams.
“I should be thinking how much fun I’m going to have on Eid al-Fitr instead of worrying how I’m going to catch up on these lessons or test the day after,” said Laila Hassan, a student at McKinley Elementary School.
Districts across the state have been grappling over whether to add religious holidays to the school calendar in response to calls from minority communities. Rocky Hill Public Schools voted in November to give students Diwali off in recognition of the Indian community. The Farmington district recently reversed a vote to remove Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur from the school calendar, and are now considering the addition of other holidays.
Stamford has also been discussing whether to add Eid al-Fitr as a recognized school holiday, with the possibility of eliminating Columbus Day or Veteran’s Day to compensate — an idea that has sparked an outcry from local Italian American groups.
Many students said they felt it was only fair that Eid should be treated the same way as other religious holidays like Christmas and the Jewish Holy Days. They said it was an important symbol and recognition of the Muslim faith. Some said they thought a day off would also give their classmates a chance to learn about the holiday.
“Living in a country where it’s predominantly non-muslim, I always felt like an outsider,” said Mustafa Seyal, a student at Fairfield Ludlow High School, who said that as a younger child, he was confused about why his friends had their holidays recognized, but Eid was not.
“I thought that Muslims didn’t have Eid off because people didn’t like us. It made me feel like I couldn’t share my traditions and cultures, and I was scared to be myself,” he said.
Mai Malkawi, a paraprofessional at McKinley School, said that every year, she speaks to the music teacher, art teacher and librarian, asking them to bring up Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr in their classes through books, songs and art projects. She said that the teachers always supported the idea, but that she still felt uncomfortable having to ask to take her kids out of school for a day to celebrate Eid.
“My question is, should we keep doing all these individual efforts every year in Ramadan and Eid, at the end of the day, our kids never feel included,” said Malkawi.
Board member Carol Guernsey, who brought up the change at the Tuesday meeting, said that while she was “deeply moved” by the outreach from the Muslim community, the reason she was proposing the change was because the number of students that were absent on Eid al-Fitr last school year had increased 43 percent.
“This is extremely concerning, considering our current challenges with absenteeism and our district’s dedication to reducing chronic absenteeism. Knowing that hundreds of students are not able to receive instruction on the Eid holiday is problematic,” said Guernsey.
She said she also supported the change as a demonstration of the community’s desire to be inclusive.
While nearly all the board members ultimately voted in favor of adding the holiday, they also voiced a variety of concerns, including the challenge that working parents would face if they needed to find childcare that day.
Board member Nick Aysseh said at the November meeting that he thought the district needed to be careful about adding holidays to the calendar with the intention of raising awareness about them. As a public school, he said, these holidays weren’t part of the curriculum.
Aysseh also said that he understood the closures on the Jewish holidays and Christmas to be less about recognizing the day and more about practicality.
“The way I’ve always understood it is that we close on those days because of operational conditions, meaning that there’s not enough students or staff there,” he said.
But he added that he was impressed by the number of people who came out to speak about Eid. He said he felt this was something that needed to be addressed on the state level, adding that the state’s demographics were changing.
Board member Jennifer Maxon-Kennelly, the only member who abstained from the vote, reiterated concerns from the November meeting that there needed to be a standard for when the board decided to add holidays.
Maxon-Kennelly said that there were other holidays that members of the public could request as days off, including Holi, Diwali, Easter Monday and Indigenous People’s Day.
“If we’re trying to be inclusive, it’s inclusive for whom?” she said.
Maxon-Kennelly said she felt it was not fair that only people who came out and actively put their requests before the board should have their holidays recognized, while other communities might not feel comfortable doing so.
But board member Jeff Peterson, who said he was initially “skeptical” of the change, said he didn’t have an issue making the decision on a case-by-case basis.
“The fact that a community came to our board and made a request is not something I think we should cast aside,” he said.
Board members Bonnie Rotelli and Christine Vitale both said that they struggled with the decision, but that the absences on Eid were deciding factors for them. Rotelli said there were nearly 250 students who had claimed a religious absence on Eid last year.
“To me, it’s just the right thing to do,” she said.