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San Francisco school board reverses decision to include Muslim holidays on school calendar

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Last month, the San Francisco Unified School District recommended recognising certain religious holidays without closing school for those days. (AFP file photo)

The San Francisco school district has backtracked on its decision to announce Eid as a school holiday, sparking a backlash from the Muslim community, who say the move is in line with the government's racist policies.

Late last month, the San Francisco Unified School District proposed adding new holidays to the school calendar, including recognizing some religious holidays without officially naming them holidays or closing schools for those days.

Lara Kiswani, executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, said the district is actually turning its back on the Arab and Muslim communities in San Francisco.

Kiswani said it sends the wrong message to Muslim communities.

"I think that sets a pretty dangerous precedent for San Francisco moving forward."

The decision represents a major change for the school district, which voted in favor of a resolution in August 2022 to add the Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha holidays as school holidays.

"Incorporating Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha into the San Francisco Unified School District Calendar as days when schools are closed in recognition of the holidays would allow Muslim students to fully participate in these holidays and maintain equal access to their educational opportunities," the 2022 resolution states.

Several districts across the country have adopted measures to recognize certain religious holidays, including Eid, Yom Kippur, and Rosh Hashanah, without similar opposition.

Kiswani said that the reversal is worrying and is a sign of the presence of a far-right movement in the country that is harming public education.

"And that is what's happening here in San Francisco. It's a reflection of a broader assault on public education."

According to a study by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, the San Francisco area is home to 250,000 Muslims.

Local advocates say allowing Eid as a school holiday would allow Muslim students to take time off to celebrate the holiday without fear of losing instructional time at school.

The campaign to recognize Eid in the school district was started in 2021 by Sarah Ouchene, who was then a high school student.

"Growing up, I've always had to take a day off from school for Eid. I would always have to get a paper from my parents in order to excuse my absence. And I would think: 'Why do I have to ask for permission if this is an important holiday for my beliefs?" Ouchene said.

Kiswani also said the effort was supported by a number of groups, including the teachers' union, and a petition was prepared that was accepted by the city's human rights commission, which issued a recommendation in favor of recognizing the Eid holiday.

But the school district's decision, made at a Jan. 24 meeting, blocked the multi-year effort. The school district issued recommendations, including making sure no exams or important events are scheduled for Eid. However, schools would remain open and students would have to take off if they wish to observe the holiday.

"It's upsetting, especially since all these like children were so excited to finally be recognized. Since growing up, we never had that recognition," said Ouchene, who is now a college student attending San Francisco State University.

"After all the work that we have put into it - I spent many like summers and weekends trying to go to meetings and figure out how to make this possible - and now all of that feels like it went to waste."

But Kiswani said she and other organizers have not given up yet. AROC has already sent thousands of letters to members of the city's board of education, she said.

"We have until March for the city to actually approve and move forward with finalizing their calendar for the upcoming school year, which is when Eid was supposed to be implemented and recognized as a holiday," she said, adding that "we're continuing to do mass public pressure."

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