Religious Holiday Absences Pose Hard Questions for Teachers, Administration
A DCPS calendar in the Walls lobby / Credits: Zoe Becker
At the beginning of the school year, SWW students received a cardstock page from teachers: A bright, colorful, newly redesigned DCPS calendar. Despite the modernized design the calendar's content hasn’t changed much.
The legend of the calendar explains that the many purple markings on the calendar indicate religious observances, from Rosh Hashanah on Sept. 26 to Diwali on Oct. 24 to Ramadan through April 21. Despite all these purple markings on the calendar, none of these holidays’ purple markings are accompanied by gray ones, indicating a DCPS closure.
According to DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee, the school system considers “observance of a religious holiday…[grounds for] an excused absence upon submission of a parent/guardian note. In addition, DCPS classifies religious events or celebrations outside of a religious holiday (up to five cumulative days in a school year) as excused absences.”
DCPS official policy further notes that “[w]herever possible, we seek to avoid scheduling critical days for staff or students (i.e. Testing, Parent-Teacher Conferences, PD days, etc.) on major religious holidays because we want students and staff to be able to take leave on these days without significant hardship.”
Nevertheless, this plays out in different ways at the classroom level.
SWW principal Sylvia Isaac explained that on the date of a religious observance “the teaching goes on, the instruction continues.”
She emphasized, however, that “students are not penalized (for their absence)...we encourage students to meet with the[ir] teacher to find out what they missed.”
This is particularly challenging to face as a teacher. Some find it hard to balance supporting students in school and not leaving behind absent students.
Jeffrey Jordan, a humanities teacher, said that having many students out for a major religious observance is “hard — it’s hard to teach something new when a majority of your class is out, which means that if you taught it you’d have to go back and reteach it when the others are here so the best thing is not to teach that then.”
Students agree that it’s difficult to miss important classes for religious holidays.
Based on her experiences missing school for Jewish holidays like Rosh Hashanah, freshman Naia Albert explained that missing a new assignment can be challenging.
“An assignment was given in my English class on Rosh Hashanah and so I was not there,” she said. “I tried to figure out what the assignment was and my teacher was completely not responsive. I had like, a C in that class for multiple weeks.”
Based on that experience, Albert explained, “If I miss an assignment it’s just really difficult to understand what’s happening.”
Junior Reuben Gartenbach agrees that when he’s absent for religious holidays it’s preferable to miss lessons rather than assignments. He noted that, “with how the school system is set up, it's better to miss actual learning than assignment for a grade.”
He highlighted the difficulty of keeping off because of a religious absence, saying, “Usually on the day of the holiday I have no time to make up any missed work or lessons.”
Albert believes that DCPS should create a policy barring teachers from assigning particularly large assignments or tests, opposed to smaller in class activities or reviews, on major religious dates. “It would be good if they have a very clear policy,” she said.
Gartenbach agreed, arguing that “it is completely unfair that just because a certain religion is smaller and has fewer people who celebrate their holiday, some students will be left behind.”
He further explained that, “That is ridiculous in D.C., with our highly religious[ly] diverse population, we don’t have breaks on other holidays. All the surrounding school systems do.”