OPINION: Religious Observance Days Don’t Meet the Mark


From Left: Images by Pixabay/john1cse - wikimedia commons - pixahive/Ritesh Ghosh

FCPS uses Religious Observance Days for Holidays like Eid, Rosh Hashan, and Bodhi Day


Most students, when thinking about their religious holidays, know they have a guaranteed day off. For all students, however, this is not the case. 


Students and parents from minority religions have been fighting for their holidayslike Diwali, Eid-al-Fitr, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippurto be recognized by the school for years. As a result, districts such as Arlington and Prince William have recognized them, making all of the above holidays days off for everyone. (The 2021-22 school calendars can be found on the Arlington and Prince William school websites).


Despite neighboring counties’ decisions, FCPS lags behind. Instead of giving the days off, FCPS gives a religious or cultural observance day, better known as an “O” day. Tests, field trips, quizzes, graduations, homecomings, or athletic events cannot be scheduled on any of these days. Any assessment will be given before the “O” day, so students don’t have to study on the “O” days.


 FCPS described the “O” days as beneficial because it “ensures students will not have to make choices between honoring their religious or cultural observance or taking a test this coming school year.” 


One of the reasons that FCPS can’t give many days off is because of a law.


“Virginia law requires each school system to provide 180 days, or 990 hours, of instruction. Holidays must also have a secular [nonreligious] justification, such as high rates of student and faculty absences that would disrupt learning,” explains an article in the Fairfax Times.


With the “O” day, students who take the day off for religious reasons would not miss tests or new material. If FCPS does give all of these days off, which would add up to about two weeks without cutting down on winter break, the school year would have to end a lot later in June to provide the required number of days of school.


Other school districts deal with this problem by reducing the number of days off to the most recognized and widely celebrated holidays–Eid, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Diwali. This adds only a few extra days to their school year, so they don’t have to cut down on winter break. For example, the Arlington and Prince William School districts end on June 15 and June 18 instead of ending on June 10 as FCPS does. 


The decision to give “O” days instead of days off for religious holidays displeased the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.


“We are deeply disappointed,” said the group’s associate director Guila Franklin Siegel in a statement for WTOP News. “The stunning lack of cultural competency and the lack of empathy for the experience of minority faiths we have seen throughout this process make clear that a great deal of education remains necessary.”


On “O” days, teachers often review topics that have already been taught or give time for students to work on assignments. Even though this is not a day with testing or instruction, students of minority faith who miss school still lose valuable work time. Indeed, it is stated that teachers must provide meaningful instruction to those in the building, so students taking the day off may miss something that advantages the other students. 


“Teachers struggle to understand how much missing a day can impact assignment completion,” Noah K., a 10th grader at McLean High School, says. He also feels like he misses valuable work time when he takes the day off for holidays.


Officials representing the Jewish Temple Rodef Shalom in Virginia said, in a statement from WTOP News, “As religious minority faith communities, we stand united in our commitment to our families. […] We will continue to hold the FCPS School Board and Administration accountable to ensure that our communities are not disadvantaged by the decisions taken today. We look forward to a clear statement of affirmation that outlines what and how FCPS will change and be held accountable for the equitable treatment of religious minority students, staff, and faculty.”


Noah also adds, “Yes, they should give the [O] days off. These days are important religious holidays to honor culture.”


FCPS frets about giving students the day off, but if our school county allows students to celebrate worry-free, students will be exposed and welcomed into different heritages. In addition, this would provide FCPS students a chance to learn about other cultures and religions, enriching their education. It’s ironic that teachers can’t teach anything important or give quizzes or tests but still have to provide something to the students in the school. “O” days are difficult for students and teachers both. It’s not an effective system.