This year, the Seattle school district apologized to Muslim families after an email suggested they prioritize their children’s performance on state exams over the common practice of fasting during Islam’s most holy month.
One school board member acknowledged that the communication that precipitated the apology effectively asked Muslim families to abandon their faith’s traditions, and he pledged to do better.
During the month of Ramadan, which started earlier this month, Muslims abstain from food and drink, including water, between sunrise and sunset in order to focus on spiritual growth, family and charity. They also often stay up late and eat a predawn meal before starting their daily fast, meaning students may struggle to learn with fewer hours of sleep.
So what exactly can educators do to lower any barriers in their classrooms and schools to make them more welcoming and inclusive for students observing Ramadan? The Missouri chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations hoped to answer that question with a new educator’s guide to Ramadan and accommodating Muslim students released earlier in May.
One thing educators should know: Like many holidays organized around the lunar calendar, the timing of Ramadan changes every year. The start of Ramadan — the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar — depends on the sighting of the new moon, which moves back about 10 to 11 days every year, said Faizan Syed, executive director of the Missouri group.
“For the first time in over a decade, Ramadan is happening squarely in the school year, and that’ll be the case for years,” Syed said. “It was just very important this year to release this guide so educators could be prepared.”
As a first step, Syed suggested teachers and principals simply take a moment and talk to their Muslim students about the holy month and ask if they even want or expect accommodations.
In many schools of thought, observant Muslims, male and female, don’t have to begin fasting until puberty. So at least in elementary school, not all Muslim students may participate.
Still, “it is cultural for even younger children to fast for part of the month or the entire month,” the guide reads. “This is entirely optional and reflects family dynamics.”
As part of their faith, Muslims pray at five different times of the day, one of which typically falls within school hours. So the guide suggests offering a space and option for Muslim students to take five to 10 minutes for their prayers.
The guide says it is incumbent upon schools to offer it, because families might not feel comfortable asking: about two-thirds of the American-Muslim community are first- or second-generation immigrants, and families new to the U.S. may not want to bring up faith in school.
“The result is many Muslim students may never ask for a safe space to pray out fear,” the guide reads.
The guide offers examples of how schools should consider Muslim students during lunch breaks, P.E. classes and testing season. It also explains religious exemptions for fasting in the Islamic tradition, and what school nurses need to know about medications and treatment during Ramadan.
In Seattle, a spokesman for the district said the school that sent the offensive email to parents hasn’t had to make any special accommodations for Muslim students so far during the testing season, mostly because they conduct the exams in the morning.
The guide ends, appropriately, with the end of Ramadan — also known as Eid al-Fitr — a three-day holiday which Muslims often celebrate at home with family. Depending on the local school calendar, Eid may conflict with important exams or assignments. But in 2015, New York City, the nation’s largest school district, added Eid to its holiday schedule so families didn’t have to decide between their religious observance and missing school.
Beyond Ramadan and his own faith, Syed encouraged all schools to think more proactively about all personal and cultural backgrounds.
“America itself is becoming more diverse,” he said. “Schools should be a nurturing and inviting environment, not just during Ramadan.”