Seattle school district leaders have apologized for an email sent to parents suggesting Muslim families reconsider the observance of their faith’s most holy month as schools prepare for the upcoming student testing season.
This year, the state scheduled those federally required exams during a window that overlaps with Ramadan, when Muslims abstain from food and drink between sunrise and sunset for a month in order to focus on spiritual growth, family and charity. But Katie May, principal of Thurgood Marshall Elementary in the Central District, used a district-generated template letter to ask parents to consider allowing their students to break that fast and eat on testing days or only fast for part of the day — so their children can “do their best on the assessments.”
Although Muslims often stay up late and eat a predawn meal before starting their fast, the letter also pleaded with families to “ensure your child is getting sufficient sleep the night before testing days.”
The email, sent to Thurgood Marshall families Monday, prompted immediate backlash on social media, as Crosscut and KCTS 9 first reported. On Tuesday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Washington (CAIR-WA) called on Seattle Public Schools to apologize for the remarks.
“This is a consistent issue with the Seattle public school system,” Masih Fouladi, CAIR-WA’s executive director, said in a statement, referring to the district’s decision to schedule the first day of kindergarten last fall on the Jewish high holiday of Rosh Hashana. “If they are committed to making education equally accessible to all, then they need to be committed to honoring diverse religious practices in the community.”
On Wednesday, the Seattle School Board held a regularly scheduled meeting that included the introduction of a five-year strategic plan that would commit the state’s largest school district to creating “culturally responsive environments from the classroom to central office.”
Superintendent Denise Juneau apologized for the email sent to Thurgood Marshall families. School Board member Zachary DeWolf also apologized for what he called a “lack of cultural awareness as it pertains to our students who observe Ramadan.”
“While the testing window is prescribed by the state, we apologize for the way our communications asked you to abandon your faith traditions and customs,” DeWolf said. “We will do better and sincerely apologize for the harm done to you.”
DeWolf also proposed a board resolution to better plan for faith observances and advocating on behalf of students for the state to consider Ramadan when it sets testing dates.
Observance of Ramadan, based on the Islamic lunar year, starts in early May this year. In Washington, standardized exams in English language arts and math, as required under federal school accountability rules, run between early March and early June.
Last year, Education Lab and The Seattle Times reported on how some King County schools have tried to accommodate Muslim students fasting during the high-stakes testing season or as they prepare for finals and graduation. In Tukwila, where about a third of students identify as Muslim, Foster High has rescheduled its end-of-the-year activities to allow Muslim students to observe the end of Ramadan with families at home.
A spokesman for the Seattle district said its testing team was aware of the overlap.
“An internal team, including staff who observe Ramadan, worked to provide school-based guidance on how to best support students and families during this sacred, monthlong holiday,” spokesman Tim Robinson said in a statement.
That guidance included the template letter that May used to ask families to adjust their fasting schedules.