A father and son join Eid al-Adha prayers at TCF Bank Stadium in July 2021. Because the holiday fell over the summer, kids did not have to miss school to observe the celebration. Now, Minneapolis, Hopkins, and Mankato will cancel classes when Eid falls on a school day. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

To continue reading this article and others for free, please sign up for our newsletter.

Sahan Journal publishes deep, reported news for and with immigrants and communities of color—the kind of stories you won’t find anywhere else.

Unlock our in-depth reporting by signing up for our free newsletter.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Rahmatullah Dem, a student at Hopkins High School, had been fasting every day for a month. Now, Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim celebration that marks Ramadan’s end, was approaching. She was preparing to celebrate with her family, which came to the United States from the Gambia—dressing up, getting her henna done, going to the mosque, and spending the day with relatives.

That year, Eid had arrived in early June, and finals were approaching. Then a high school freshman, she needed class review sessions, and didn’t want to fall behind.

But though it marked one of the most important days of the year for her faith, Eid was just another school day in Hopkins.

“I was fasting and I was going to my mosque, so I was really, really tired,” said Rahmatullah, now 17. “I was still going to school, but it was difficult for me to even be able to keep on top of my classes, much less prepare to miss a day.”

That difficult juggling act is about to end. Starting next year, Muslim students in Hopkins can celebrate Eid without worrying about missing classes. On January 18, the Hopkins school board approved a school calendar that adds new holidays—Eid and the Jewish high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. 

The same day, the Mankato school board passed a similar calendar change, approving holidays for Eid and Indigenous People’s Day. On February 8, Minneapolis Public Schools also adopted a calendar that for the first time includes Eid and the Jewish high holy days. The new calendars take effect in the 2022-2023 school year. Moorhead Area Public Schools changed its calendars last year: the district will not hold classes May 2 and 3, 2022, allowing students time to celebrate Eid this spring. The St. Anthony–New Brighton School District already cancels classes for Eid.

The changes mark a new push from Minnesota school districts to add Eid to the school calendar for the first time.

Siad Ali, a Minneapolis school board member, called the new calendar a “huge win.” Many students, staff members, and bus drivers in Minneapolis observe Eid and need the day off, he noted.

“We want our children to celebrate with us without feeling that they’re missing their classroom or they’re missing their schoolwork,” he said. “This is a joyful moment.”

“We want our children to celebrate with us without feeling that they’re missing their classroom or they’re missing their schoolwork.”

Siad Ali, Minneapolis school board member

The moves in Minneapolis, Hopkins, Moorhead, and Mankato follow actions in districts across the country. New York City added Eid to the school calendar in 2015; a handful of districts in New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Michigan followed suit. Minnesota charter schools with large Muslim populations have long scheduled classes around the Eid holidays.

Abdisalam Adam, a community leader who holds many roles—Cedar-Riverside imam, St. Paul assistant principal, and Fridley school board member—said the change was a long time coming. He started teaching in St. Paul schools in 1997. From the beginning, he said, Muslim community members expressed a “yearning” to have their holidays honored in the school calendar.

“I’m surprised that it has taken this long,” he said.

‘Make them feel that they’re important, too’

In Hopkins, the idea for a more inclusive calendar came from students, said Jen Westmoreland Bouchard, the school board chair. Two years ago, Muslim and Jewish student representatives proposed including their holidays on the school calendar.

“They brought forward this issue of calendar equity,” Bouchard said. “And the board became very excited about it.”

Oscar Wolfe, a student school board representative in Hopkins, said at the January 18 board meeting that neither his parents nor grandparents had expected to see Jewish holidays honored on school calendars in their lifetimes.

“The high holidays are supposed to be a time of reflection, time with family,” he told the school board. “But what they became was an annual reminder that we were different, that we were somehow not a part of what everyone else was a part of.”

Adding these holidays to the calendar will help children feel more included, and provide long-term psychological benefits, he said.

Tanya Khan, a Hopkins school board member and a parent of two recent graduates, recalled her own childhood in upstate New York in the 1980s. She had to participate in Christmas activities in school. Her teachers were dismissive when she spoke about Eid. It made her feel lonely, she said.

When her children attended Hopkins schools, their teachers were understanding when they had to take time off, and always excused their absences, she said.

But some Muslim students still went to class, not knowing they could have asked for excused absences. “That’s why we took particular interest in putting that on a calendar to make it easier for students and to make them feel that they’re important, too,” Khan said.

For Sharon El-Amin, a Minneapolis school board member who championed the calendar change, Eid is always a major family celebration. Yet as her children grew older, it became harder to balance Eid and school. They worried about missing a test or a basketball game. And they didn’t want to have to explain their religious identity to their teachers and classmates. Sometimes they went to prayers in the morning before heading back to school.

Since Minneapolis passed its new calendar, she’s heard “a lot of alhamdulillah,” she said—an Arabic phrase for “praise be to God.”

“Right now families need to feel wanted,” she said. “They need to feel welcomed, and they need to feel appreciated. And I think this is that token to show you that you are wanted, we do appreciate you, and we do recognize your way of living.”

A change long in the making

Abdisalam, one of the first Somali teachers in Minnesota schools, said problems with holding school during Eid are not new. Even if schools excuse student absences, parents sometimes have to call the school on Eid to announce the student’s absence, or send a note to school the next day. Some schools schedule tests or field trips on the day many students will be absent. And that has an impact on students, he said.

“For the students, definitely, it’s the identity issue: ‘Who am I and do I belong? Is this my country? Is this my community? Is this my school?’ A kind of sense of alienation,” he said. “On the one hand, we’re telling them there’s multiculturalism and diversity. At the same time, they’re not being seen for such a big occasion as their Eid celebrations and holidays. There’s a contradiction there.”

“On the one hand, we’re telling them there’s multiculturalism and diversity. At the same time, they’re not being seen for such a big occasion as their Eid celebrations and holidays. There’s a contradiction there.”

abdisalam adam, twin cities educator and imam

One reason this change may be happening now, Abdisalam said, is a growing consensus in the Muslim community about how to determine Eid. The Islamic calendar follows a lunar schedule; in some communities, celebrations begin not on a specific date but when the crescent moon is sighted. That can make it challenging to plan. But in recent years, there has been more agreement in the Muslim community to rely on astronomical calculations rather than a physical moon sighting.

The decision to declare Eid a holiday is also just practical, he said: If enough students and staff cannot attend, it no longer makes sense for the district to hold school.

“That sense of happiness that children need, for them to be recognized, and for them to not worry between school and the day off, I think significantly boosts their morale and their pride as Muslim students in public schools,” he said.

“That sense of happiness that children need, for them to be recognized … I think significantly boosts their morale and their pride as Muslim students in public schools.”

abdisalam adam

The efforts to make it easier for students to celebrate Eid without sacrificing their schoolwork got a boost at the state legislature last year. The education omnibus bill included a provision that requires school boards to notify parents annually about the district’s policy on student absences for religious observances.

The bill had long been a priority of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, said Imam Asad Zaman. Its first sponsor, in 2017, was Ilhan Omar, then a state representative.

‘You want some of them to come back’

Mankato, a city of about 45,000 people in southwestern Minnesota, is home to a somewhat more conservative political climate than reliably blue Minneapolis and Hopkins. But Mankato’s students, too, are increasingly diverse: A third of them are now people of color, including large Somali and Sudanese populations. 

The change to the school calendar came out of a process to update the district’s mission and vision statements to focus more on inclusivity and cultural diversity, said Stacy Wells, communications director for Mankato Area Public Schools. She described the move as “small, but not insignificant.”

“It’s just one thing that we can do to say that we really do value you and you are very visible to us,” she said.

Some community members have praised the calendar move. But a “small but noisy” minority has characterized it as “divisive,” she said.

Wells, who has an extensive background in diversity and inclusion work in education, has heard conversations about adding Eid to the calendar in Twin Cities area schools for 10 years. Fear of pushback can prevent districts from moving forward, and school leaders tend to be cautious, she said. But now she hopes more districts, including those outside the metro area, will add Eid to their calendars.

“Across the state, our more rural areas and more outstate areas are also grappling with changing diversity,” she said. “Our schools see the change before anything else in a community does.”

“Our schools see the change before anything else in a community does.”

Stacy Wells, Mankato schools communications director

Some rural communities struggle with retaining young people, she noted, leading to a population decline and economic troubles. Making diverse students feel welcome in their communities from a young age could help.

“When your students graduate from high school and go to college, you want some of them to come back,” she said. “We have to find ways to encourage young people and more diverse people to come into those areas. And so I think that’s something that has to be reckoned with.”

‘This will be all she knows’

Rahmatullah, now a senior at Hopkins High School, will graduate before the calendar change goes into effect. She hopes this spring’s Eid, in early May, doesn’t conflict with Decision Day, when seniors come to school sporting clothing from the college they plan to attend in the fall.

Still, she was “really excited” to learn about the calendar change, she said. “It just makes me feel so much better,” she said. “I feel like it shows how the world is becoming more accepting and how it’s changing.”

Her brother, now in ninth grade, won’t have to miss his finals review sessions for Eid like she did. And her baby sister will never know a world where Eid wasn’t a school holiday.

“I’m really happy about the fact that this will be all she knows,” Rahmatullah said. “I hope for her and for the future generation, it’ll make a lot of people feel more accepted.”

Clarification and update: This story has been updated to clarify comments from Sharon El-Amin. And it includes additional reporting on Moorhead Area Public Schools and the St. Anthony–New Brighton School District.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.