My thoughts on the calendar adoption

My Thoughts on the Calendar Adoption

The school board voted on a new school calendar during Thursday’s regular meeting. 

The annual adoption of the calendar is complex.  While ensuring that our students, families, and staff are respected and feel valued, heard and included:  it must be student focused and legally compliant, and that is a challenging balance to obtain.


This year’s calendar vote was one of the most difficult votes I have ever taken because of my concerns about students or staff who observe religions that have not traditionally been included in our calendars.  I understand the feelings of not being seen or being treated as “other” expressed by the groups that were represented in the proposed calendar as well as those that have advocated for years for their holidays. 


To offer a board context, in Fairfax, almost half of the residents identify as religiously observant.  According to the Pew Research Center, over 7% of Northern Virginia’s residents observe religious holidays that are not aligned with the Christmas Holiday included in the Federal schedule, 20% are unaffiliated with any religion, and the remainder are Christians that follow the Julian calendar.  The previous Board asked the Superintendent to establish a task force to make recommendations for policy changes across the school system and its operations to begin the work of religious and culture inclusion.  Unbeknownst to this board, the task force chose to limit its recommendations to only the calendar and recommended the three religions' holidays for observances.  Unfortunately, these recommendations were not provided to the board, or the general counsel for legal review, prior to publication.


We were advised by legal counsel that the establishment clause and rights of free exercise in the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent govern Board decision-making.  The establishment clause required the board to make decisions on school closures based on secular reasons such as absentee data of students, or staff, for days identified for religious observance and the precedent on the right of exercise that allow for excusing absences and limiting activities on days where students and staff may want to take off to worship. Reviewing the data that can be found here, shows that there are 15 days that are observed by our families beyond the Federal holidays in our current calendar.  Some of these dates showed higher rates of absenteeism than those proposed for holidays in the calendar.  We heard from some religious and cultural groups that the board was favoring some religions over others and excluding their observances. 


Additionally, we heard from our employees that are hourly employees (almost 25% of our work force) that their concerns were ignored regarding the impact of increasing the number of unpaid holidays or extension of the school year. These decisions impact them financially due to lost wages and the ability to gain supplemental summer incomes.  Due to the pandemic, we were not able to give pay increases last year and we are hearing from the board of supervisors that there will not be funding for raises this year as well.  However, their health care premiums have been increased resulting in less take home pay.  We also heard from some of the working families (over 60% of the households in Fairfax are dual income) about the impact of school closures on their families.  All of these data are critically important to factor in as decisions are made.


Given all this, I supported an interim calendar for next year so that the issues of the community and staff can be considered and addressed more fully.  The calendar identifies the religious holidays that different members of our community celebrate and allows individuals to observe their holidays without having to choose between missing a test or quiz, concert, field trip, or other important school event.  The calendar also decouples the spring break from Easter. For me, this was a vote that supported a proactive first step in the work to come on the calendar.


We heard repeatedly about the impact on students and families having to choose between religious observances and school activities, including tests and quizzes and special events such as performances, field trips, proms, graduations and try-outs.  In the past, FCPS has only had discretionary guidelines on school absences and leave for teachers was based on the availability of a substitute.  With this in mind, we directed the superintendent to develop enforceable regulations on no tests or quizzes on the day of an observed holiday or the day after, or concerts, recitals, auditions, games, etc... on the day of an observed holiday.  A substantive change from the discretionary guidelines is that school principals will be required to certify that the school activities have been reviewed to ensure adherence to the regulations.  In addition to our attention to strengthening the mechanisms of accountability that are employed, I believe we are also better positioned to more actively move the division into inclusive practices.  We anticipate that this will be a significant year of learning that will help us grow in responsivity to the vast diversity of FCPS and the Fairfax County Community.    


Additionally, staff will have two floating days for religious observance guaranteed, e.g. not at the discretion of the principals, which is the current practice.  I have asked that these be treated as administrative leave, and therefore it is not required to have the 16 hours made up as is the current practice.


Lastly, in addition to the adoption of the interim calendar for next year, the board directed the Superintendent establish a calendar development process that provides clarity on the criteria and priorities used to establish annual calendars in the future, including recognition days for religious and cultural observances.  This will be a transparent process which will allow for all to have their voices heard.  We know that this process has been both painful and challenging for many and I am sorry for this.  It’s important that you are aware that my colleagues and I are committed to cultivating a more inclusive environment as we move forward.



The views contained within this newsletter reflect the views of the individual school board member who is the publisher of this newsletter and may not reflect the views of the Fairfax County School Board.

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