THE CAMBRIDGE school system’s decision to close school for one of two important Muslim holidays is a good way to promote the acceptance of Muslim students, especially at a time when many people are concerned about rising anti-Muslim sentiments in the country. It’s also a sensible response to changing demographics in Cambridge schools. While every school system should be free to devise its own approach to religious holidays, Cambridge’s decision to close schools for a Muslim holiday is consistent with its policy for closing on Christian and Jewish celebrations, and should be respected.
One of the holidays in question, Eid al-Adha, the so-called “festival of sacrifice,’’ commemorates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice Ishmael. The other holiday, Eid al-Fitr, marks the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Both are important days on the Islamic calendar, so, starting in 2011, Cambridge schools will be closed for whichever holiday falls on a school day. (If both do, school will only be closed for one.)
For skeptics, this new policy is easy to dismiss as the latest act of political correctness from the People’s Republic of Cambridge. Yet, according to Cambridge schools superintendent Jeffrey Young, teachers and principals say that the population of Muslim students in Cambridge is growing, and that there are a notable number of absences on both of the Eid dates. The decision to acknowledge these facts by closing school for one Muslim holiday a year is no different from the decision years ago to begin closing school for one of the two Jewish holidays Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.
“It’s clear that there’s a pretty significant and vibrant Muslim community in Cambridge,’’ said Young. “You walk through the schools, and you can see it with your own eyes.’’
Superintendents have enough scheduling leeway to ensure that religious holidays can be observed without reducing the overall number of school days for instruction; like all systems, Cambridge is legally required to be open for 180 days. The decision to close for a Muslim holiday won’t detract from that number.
Still, not every religious holiday can be observed by closing school. Maybe in an ideal world, a school system would rely on hard statistics; if adherents of a specific religion made up a certain percentage of student enrollment, the system would not schedule classes on its major holidays. But Cambridge has been making modest accommodations for a variety of religions for years. Right now, Cambridge teachers work with students who miss school for religious holidays so that nobody is punished for practicing their faith.
Muslims are as entitled to worship as Jews and Christians. There’s nothing more American than giving students the day off to observe their religions, whether those observances occur in a church, synagogue, or mosque.