Wake students could get Election Day and a Muslim holiday off from school

Charlotte-area Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr

Thousands of Charlotte-area Muslims gathered Friday morning to mark the end of Ramadan with prayer and greetings of "Eid Mubarak," which is Arabic for "Happy Eid,"
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Thousands of Charlotte-area Muslims gathered Friday morning to mark the end of Ramadan with prayer and greetings of "Eid Mubarak," which is Arabic for "Happy Eid,"

Wake County students could get off from school on both Election Day and Eid al-Fitr, one of Islam’s most important holidays, starting in the 2020-21 school year.

Wake school administrators are recommending that Nov. 3, 2020 be made a districtwide teacher workday that would keep students home on what’s expected to be a high turnout Election Day. Administrators also recommended Tuesday that the first day of Eid al-Fitr on May 13, 2021 be made a teacher workday for traditional-calendar schools, but that day off could be expanded to include other schools.

The board could approve the 2020-21 schedules for traditional, year-round and modified-calendar schools in March.

The issue of whether schools should be closed on Election Day has been a long-running one in Wake. Nearly 70 Wake schools now serve as polling places, prompting security and traffic concerns about having people on campuses on Election Day.

A bill filed in the legislature would change state law so that local boards of election can’t use schools as polling sites unless they get permission from the school board.

Historically, Wake has scheduled a delayed opening on Election Day to avoid having students on campus during the heaviest of the morning voter traffic. Administrators said that they can now hold a teacher workday on Election Day due to a decision to cut the number of school days by eliminating early release days.

The potential day off on Eid al-Fitr would be a victory for the Muslim community, which has lobbied Wake to treat it like how school isn’t scheduled on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur or the Christian holidays of Christmas and Good Friday.

An online petition calling on Wake to make Eid-al-Fitr a school district holiday has drawn nearly 5,000 signatures. Organizers say that not holding classes that day would “exhibit inclusivity and tolerance for diverse cultures represented in Wake County.”

“There are several examples of other districts in the country that have adopted this measure as a sign of acknowledgment of the growing percentage of Muslims in US,” according to the petition. “Holidays that reflect cultural diversity are a great source of learning for the entire student body and create an environment that is more beneficial to teachers and staff.”

The News & Observer previously reported that the Association of Religion Data Archives estimates that 11 out of every 1,000 residents in Wake County are Muslim, based on data collected by the 2010 U.S. Religion Census. The school district does not keep track of religions practiced by students or their families.

School officials said schools aren’t closed for students on religious holidays for religious reasons but based on whether there’s an expectation that a large number of students and staff could be absent.

Currently, students can get an excused absence for religious reasons. But Muslim families have pointed to how holding school on religious holidays forces students to decide between their faith and missing classes that could set them behind academically.

A district committee made up of 37 parents, teachers and community members developed a schedule for traditional-calendar schools that included the Eid al-Fitr teacher workday. The traditional calendar is used by the majority of Wake’s 160,000 students.

At the request of school board member Chris Heagarty, administrators said they’d also look at whether May 13, 2021 could also be made a teacher workday for year-round and modified calendar schools. Heagarty argued that western Wake year-round schools are more likely to have a higher number of students who are absent on Eid al-Fitr.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.