Implementing Inclusivity: New District Policy Outlines Expectations for Assignments on Jewish and Muslim Holidays

Since the school calendar is based and around major Christian holidays, students of  other cultures often miss school to observe different holidays. According to Westside Community Schools Superintendent Mike Lucas, over the past few years, there have been numerous discussions amongst administration about the district’s policy on assignments being given out during major Jewish and Muslim holidays. Lucas said that he and his senior administrative team wanted to clarify the district policy regarding these days and sent an email to all instructors detailing the policy on Sept. 4. The policy targets major holidays such as Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah and the beginning of Ramadan.

“It is a district-wide expectation/focus that we will NOT have tests, exams and major projects on Jewish and Muslim holidays,” Lucas wrote. “Please plan ahead and plan accordingly.”

Developing a policy on giving out assignments on Jewish and Muslim holidays was an area of focus during the transition time between former Westside Community Schools Superintendent Blane McCann and Lucas. Lucas said he hopes the policy is transparent for instructors and students in the future.

“We just wanted to come out with a clarification and a simple, bulleted document … that lays out exactly what we want for our Jewish and Muslim holidays,” Lucas said.

To students such as senior Yasmine Elrefaie, who practices Islam, observing different religions in a Christian-dominated country can be difficult at times. Elrefaie said that choosing between religion and school is a decision that she is often forced to make.

“I used to think about people that get two weeks off for their Christmas break, and I don’t get anything off,” Elrefaie said. “I understand that this country is dominated by Christianity, but it’s harder to go to [my] holidays, given school and missing school.”

 Lucas said that the main goals of this policy are increased clarity for instructors and students, increased inclusivity throughout Westside and to prevent students from having to choose between school and religion. While he said he thinks Westside is already accepting of all cultures, he also believes that there is always room for improvement.

“[We are] trying to be more inclusive and understanding and appreciating that we get to be around people that have beliefs and value systems different than ours,” Lucas said. “Inclusivity is a big goal of what we want to accomplish and improve at Westside. You can always get better, and that’s what we want to try and work on.”

Junior Lauren Kugler, who practices Judaism, said that the new policy is something she has always wanted to see, but didn’t know if it would come to fruition. She said it also impacts her view of Lucas.

“I think [the policy is] a big step for Westside, and it shows that [Lucas] is trying to make Westside very inclusive,” Kugler said. “By doing this, it’ll show other people that there are important cultural things that we miss, and now more people are going to know about the Jewish and Muslim holidays.”

Elrefaie said she is also appreciative of the new policy and Lucas’s part in developing it.

“I think it’s really cool that [Lucas is] respecting other religions as well and their holidays,” Elrefaie said. “Even though [the holidays I observe] fall on school days, being able to go celebrate and go pray is really cool.”

The policy targets only major Jewish and Muslim holidays. Due to this, there are other religions that may be left out. Lucas said he views this as the potential drawback to the new policy.

“There are a lot of other religions out there besides Christianity, Judaism and Islam,” Lucas said. “How do we accommodate each one? It’s extremely difficult in a school district where you’re trying to meet the needs of 6,000 plus students, so we have a lot of work to do in that.”

While the new policy hasn’t been tested yet, upcoming Jewish holidays Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, on Oct 9 and Sept. 30, will be its first trial. Regardless of any potential setbacks, Lucas said the most important thing is showing Westside students and families that he and Westside Community Schools care.

“We really just want to set the tone and want students and their families to know we love you, we support you, we appreciate you and we support your beliefs, and we’re going to do our best to make the accommodations that we can to empower your beliefs and your religious rights,”  Lucas said.