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What schools are doing to cultivate religious inclusivity

Posted at 10:29 PM, May 02, 2022

At 27 years old, Abrar Omeish was the youngest woman elected to public office in the Commonwealth of Virginia. She remembers her high school years in Fairfax County well.  

"I remember feeling invisible and that's, you know, going through the Ramadan having to self advocate to tell a coach, for example, we're running the mile today, I'm fasting, this might not make sense for me to do," Omeish said.

Now a school board member in that same district, she's drawing from her experience to create a culture of religious inclusivity at the state's largest school system.

"Because it's not enough for me as a Muslim to think about Ramadan and Eid, but then to put myself in other people's shoes," Omeish said.

The new school calendar now recognizes 15 religious or cultural days including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Orthodox Good Friday, Diwali and the Muslim holiday, Eid.

But changing the calendar wasn't easy — and legally required a need beyond inclusivity.  

"We've got schools where over a quarter or up to half of the student population is absent on a certain holiday," Omeish said. "That is an operational disruption to instruction. We're not doing effective learning when half the classroom is not there and a teacher doesn't know whether she should teach new material or not." 

School districts across the country are trying to figure out ways to recognize holidays like Ramadan and make sure the learning experience is considerate of all students."

"There's that dissonance there and that leads to what we can imagine — that sense of disconnect, that sense of not belonging," said Sean Adams, superintendent of Paramus Public Schools in New Jersey.

While it may seem trivial, Adams says you can tell a lot about a school by its calendar, so they changed theirs to include closure days for holidays like Lunar New Year, Diwali and Juneteenth.   

"As a community grows, as society changes, its values shift, awareness increases," Adams said.

For both school systems, it goes beyond calendar days; it includes guidance for teachers and staff on how to be considerate of students during holidays.

"The materials that they are learning from, the books that they're reading, the heroes who are identified for them, do they see themselves there?" Adams said. "Do they see others who are not themselves there?"

"We talk about stress quizzes, field trips, graduation, homecoming, athletic events should not be scheduled around those religious or cultural experiences in order to respect the diversity of our students' families," said Dr. Iona Spikes, director of equity and family engagement for Fairfax County public schools.

That consideration is something 14-year-old Kinzie Zahran says could go a long way, especially during Ramadan, a month-long event when Muslims fast from sun up to sundown.

"I participate in Ramadan to experience what the poor have and don't have," Kinzie Zahran said.

The California teen and her mother enjoy taking part in the tradition but wish schools took notice.

"From the beginning of the month, just like a little, oh, just let you know it's the month of Ramadan," Sarah Zahran said. "We have fellow Muslim students celebrating and participating, and that's to show your support and kindness. That'll be wonderful."

But educators have to navigate a rise in parents who seem to be taking a more critical eye over what is taught or allowed in schools and those who want to see less religion, not more.  

That's a topic Omeish had to confront as well.  

"If we're not preparing kids from the beginning with these inclusive practices, with conversations around how we're different and how that's okay and how that's actually a good thing, and we can learn from one another," Omeish said. "We're setting ourselves up for failure and certainly not preparing the generation to lead us forward."

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