Dr. Susan Douglas

What is the basis for accommodation policies on religious holidays in public schools?

The First Amendment to the US Constitution protects the freedom of religious expression for groups living in the United States, including worship, places to worship, and the ability to practice their religion. That freedom, without question, includes annual observances. For example, Christmas and Easter are woven into the calendars used by most public school educators, so that vacations and days off occur around holidays observed by the majority. As the United States population becomes more religiously diverse, public school calendars have been adapted to accommodate a variety of holidays observed by groups such as Hindus, Jews, and Muslims.

What do school officials and teachers need to know about Ramadan & students?

Observance of the fasting-month of Ramadan by Muslims, and the celebration that marks its end, called Eid al-Fitr (Celebration of the Fast Breaking) requires a thoughtful and accommodating response by school administrators and teachers, as well as an understanding by fellow students, in both public and private schools.

What is the Islamic observance of Ramadan?

During the month of Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar, Muslims abstain from all food and drink from dawn to sunset. This religious duty of fasting is known as sawm in Arabic. It is one of the “Five Pillars,” or basic acts of worship in Islam.

Who is required to fast in Ramadan?

Muslims who have reached puberty, are of sound mind and healthy enough to carry it out, are required to fast during the month. Exceptions are made for Muslims when they travel, those who are acutely or chronically ill, as well as menstruating women and nursing or pregnant mothers. Those who must take medications may be unable to fast, or adjust their medication schedule.

When does Ramadan begin?

The appearance of the month of Ramadan each year is based on the lunar calendar, based on sighting of the new moon’s crescent, or calculation of when the moon is sightable in various regions of the globe. The lunar calendar is shorter than the solar, or Gregorian, calendar, which means that Ramadan moves through the months and seasons of the solar year, arriving about 11 days earlier each year. The beginning and end of Ramadan may vary by a day, based on methods of observing the appearance of the crescent of the new moon, or its calculation. Local observation was the norm before instantaneous global communication, and the new moon cannot be sighted all around the world on the same day, so Ramadan does not begin everywhere on the same day.

Which school-age students are likely to be fasting in Ramadan?

Fasting is required for adults, but children and youth practice fasting during part of the month, or part of the day. Many older Muslim students fast for the whole month, and some younger children want to fast during part of the month, if they are willing and able and if their parents allow them to do so. Children love to participate in the practice as a way of feeling included in this festive month, and feeling grown up and able to prove themselves, even if they fast only a few days or part of a day.

How can school officials and teachers accommodate fasting students?

School administrators can show sensitivity to fasting students by providing alternate locations during lunchtime so that they can be away from the cafeteria. During Ramadan, Muslims may decline to participate in parties or other events that feature food and beverages. During Ramadan, teachers may notice that fasting students may be subdued in their behavior, especially by the afternoon. It is worth noting that fasting becomes much easier for most after the first few days, and the body adjusts. It is ultimately a personal choice that students make, and a milestone in their becoming adults. It is to be performed with God-consciousness and for spiritual uplift and the serenity that it can bring. Being aware of and addressing possible bullying and ridicule of fasting students is a good way to support this challenging experience.

What school activities may require accommodation during Ramadan?

Some Muslim students or their parents may ask that they be exempted from rigorous activity in their Physical Education classes during Ramadan. Physical Education teachers are encouraged to allow fasting Muslim students to participate in alternative activities during Ramadan in order to avoid the possibility of dehydration or hypoglycemia resulting from strenuous exercise, especially when the weather is hot and it could lead to heat exhaustion. Grading practices in P.E. should not penalize students who strive to fulfill this religious obligation.

High-stakes standardized testing during Ramadan may fall in the month of May, both state tests and Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate. This places the burden on high school students and their families to decide how to manage studying and test-taking. Their decisions will vary on whether to “tough it out” fasting, or take a break from fasting for test day. Whatever the solution, the encouragement of teachers and suspension of any personal judgements will be valuable and appreciated. The fact is, many students fast during challenging times and succeed. Each family and individual must know their own limits and interpret accordingly. A principle of Islam is that God is merciful and the duties of Islam are not to cause hardship. Allowances are built into the requirements.

Sleep schedules are affected during Ramadan

Ramadan fasting is also a time of spiritual observances, especially additional prayers and reading scripture in the mosques. Shared meals and socializing are part of the month’s observances. While parents try to minimize the changes to their children’s sleeping schedules, some alteration is inevitable during Ramadan. The daily fast is preceded by a pre-dawn meal as early as 3:30am in the summer, and it is broken at sunset. Near the end of Ramadan, Muslims commemorate a special event called Laylat al-Qadr (“The Night of Determination”). The Qur’an states that on this night in Ramadan, 610 CE, Muhammad (peace be upon him) first received revelation from God. In honor of this event, the Muslim community observes additional prayers for several nights toward the end of the month, especially on the 27th night. Parents may request an excused absence for their children on the following day if the 27th of Ramadan falls on a weeknight and students have been up very late. Again, any high-stakes standardized testing that might fall on these dates beyond the control of the school administration will necessitate making decisions about how to balance the desire to fully observe the month with the high value placed on educational achievement.

When does Ramadan end? What celebrations take place?

Ramadan ends as it began, with the sighting of the new moon. Eid al-Fitr (“Feast of Breaking the Fast”) celebrates the end of Ramadan and the first day of the month called Shawwal. On the morning of the Eid, Muslim families gather for worship services at a local masjid or other community locations. They visiting with relatives and friends, share special foods and entertainments. As with the start of Ramadan, there may be some discrepancy about the date of Eid celebrations among members of the Muslim community, due to differing methods of determining the first day of a new lunar month. If Eid falls on a school day, Muslim parents will request an excused absence from school, which conforms to most school accommodation policies. This also includes the ability to make up any exams, or not scheduling school-determined exams on that release day.

Susan Douglass has a doctorate in history from George Mason University, and an M.A. in Arab Studies from Georgetown. She serves as K-14 Education Outreach Coordinator at Georgetown’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, and conducts education outreach for Georgetown’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding nationwide. Dr. Douglass is an author and curriculum writer whose work appears in books, in school curriculum and reports, and online teaching resources.