Plano ISD updates guidelines for religious holiday accommodation

By Aaron Greenberg
Special to the TJP

PLANO — The Plano Independent School District has updated its guidelines for dealing with religious holidays, marking three Jewish and two Muslim holy days on the public calendar for the coming year, and adopting recommendations to accommodate students on those dates.
“I think this new policy will greatly guide religious sensitivity, and PISD is setting a top-down example by bringing it to our community from the boardroom,” said Julie Liberman, a Jewish parent who attended the Jan. 24 meeting.

Photo: Plano ISD
Photo: Plano ISD

The issue was brought to the school board by one of its trustees, Dr. Yoram Solomon, in October. Solomon, who is Jewish, pointed to issues that Jewish and Muslim parents raised over the scheduling of major school events and tests on holy days.
“The problem that we had is that we put kids of different faiths in an impossible position of, you either acknowledge your faith and observe the holiday, or go to school because you will miss something,” Solomon told the board.
Previously, there were 109 holidays listed on the calendar, 53 as “major” — and he said that led to difficulties for school leaders.
“This recommendation, as you have it now, does provide a lot of clarity,” Solomon said.
The dates included in the discussion were Rosh Hashanah (Sept. 20-22), Yom Kippur (Sept. 29-30), Passover (March 30-April 7), Eid al Adha (Sept. 1-2), and Eid al Fitr (June 14-15). During the meeting, some board members were concerned about the weeklong nature of Passover, and it was noted that only the beginning of the holiday has been a concern for parents.
The five recommendations include “extending the utmost respect while acknowledging the holy days” and reaffirming the commitment with staff members; adding a diamond symbol on the public calendar to mark the dates; training staff and communicating with parents on the guidelines; assisting staff with inquiries about the guidelines; and making the internal holy days calendar tool public.
Perhaps most relevant to Jewish parents is the statement that “the expectation for staff will be to refrain from scheduling major assessments/tests on the days of faith acknowledgment. … Additionally, programs for which the schedule can be controlled, schools are expected not to plan campus activities involving students and parents on the days/evenings of faith acknowledgment.”
One area where the board did not want to go was in defining major events.
“We didn’t want to determine from 15th Street what a major campus activity is,” Superintendent Dr. Brian Binggeli said. “We wanted to make sure we would leave that decision for them.”
He also clarified — as was mentioned in the October meeting — that athletic events through the UIL are out of the hands of district administrators.
Solomon said the district always had its heart in the right place, and Binggeli agreed, pointing out the effort of the comprehensive list.
“We have done, really for many years, a pretty good job of explaining to all of our school teams those observances,” Binggeli said. “Well, maybe we do the job too well in that we identify virtually every observance in all of these faiths.”
At the October meeting, the board directed Karla Oliver, the assistant superintendent for Government, Community and Planning Initiatives, to look into identifying the holiest days and how best to incorporate them.
Administrators turned to other area districts to learn how they handled holiday issues, and corresponded with several local faith leaders, including Rabbi Menachem Block of Chabad of Plano and Rabbi Stefan Weinberg and Rabbi Michael Kushnick of  Congregation Anshai Torah. In addition, Oliver reviewed emails previously sent by parents regarding their concerns.
Although only Muslim and Jewish leaders responded, the district is still looking for input on other religious groups’ holiest days of observance, Solomon said.
“I feel that reaching out to the community and encouraging people to tell their stories to board trustees was an important part,” Solomon told the Texas Jewish Post after the meeting.
He said he was pleased with how the guidelines were adjusted and noted that most parents were excited, although he understood why a few remained skeptical, having asked for changes before.
“It doesn’t leave much room for misunderstanding, as the previous guidelines did,” Solomon said. “We will now need to make sure that training is provided to campuses (as the guidelines state), and that the problem really is solved. I would be more than happy to be the destination for any student who feels these guidelines are not followed.”
There was some question over summer school and holidays on weekends. And one board member advised giving Christmas and Easter the diamond designation, although they are historically days off for the district.
Liberman found that somewhat humorous because “since there has never been school on those days, this has effectively been a non-issue for anyone of Christian faith. Anyone celebrating Christmas or Easter would never have to choose between observing their holiday or taking a test, attending a field trip, etc.”
Even before the board addressed the issue at the meeting, five speakers during the public comment portion were Muslim parents or guardians expressing concern. Shaheen Salam said her grandson was marked with an unexcused absence during summer school despite a note she wrote to the teacher regarding the holiday.
“To the extent that there was a student who was marked as unexcused, that was an error. That was not the policy of the district,” said Board Member David Stolle.
Jewish parents indicated that this kind of error was one of the major reasons for the reassessment.
“For a district that thinks so highly of its attention to multiculturalism, the trickle down to the individual schools has been poor,” said parent Lindsay Feldman, who attended the October meeting. “Hopefully, the board appreciates our communities coming forward to confront them on an area that needs improvement.”
Liberman praised Oliver and the board for the research and effort put into the changes.
“Things will undoubtedly come up, but now there is something in writing we can refer to in order to rectify the situation,” she said.
Solomon said he understands the concerns about how it will be put into practice.
“This is the first time we are implementing this, so I expect ‘growing pains,’ ” he said. “We will need to closely follow the implementation and address any issues that might arise.”

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