Gwinnett school board chair criticizes new district calendar

She said it’s not inclusive to Chinese, Jewish and Muslim students

Gwinnett County’s school board chair said she was “extremely disappointed” with the calendar the district adopted last week for the 2023-2024 school year for not being inclusive to several communities.

Tarece Johnson expressed support for Muslim students who asked in February for the district to make the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr a districtwide holiday and day off from school. Johnson, who is Jewish, also asked staff to consider holidays such as Lunar New Year and Yom Kippur.

The calendar, though, doesn’t add any new holidays. School board members can offer suggestions, but the superintendent’s staff sets the calendar and dates for breaks and days off each year.

ExploreMuslim students in Gwinnett ask for religious holiday off from school

“I am extremely disappointed in the system for choosing a calendar that doesn’t reflect the needs of each and every child,” Johnson said at a recent school board meeting. She later wrote on Facebook, “This calendar issue may seem like a small issue for some people, but it is indicative of so many larger issues of not listening, not courageously accepting diversity and not being equitable in everything we do.”

Al Taylor, Gwinnett’s chief of schools, said adjusting the calendar is complex because of numerous parameters and community expectations, such as having a full week off for Thanksgiving, ending the first semester by winter break and finishing the school year by Memorial Day. The main concerns of most feedback from employees, parents, students and other community members collected during the calendar development was maintaining existing breaks.

Taylor said while many people supported more holidays, others noted challenges with finding child care because day cares often close when the schools are closed and the possibility of affecting breaks.

Gwinnett is the largest and one of the most diverse districts in the state. The district website says students come from more than 100 countries and speak more than 100 languages. The Public Religion Research Institute found that Gwinnett County has more religious diversity than average. It estimated in 2020 that 2% of the county’s more than 900,000 residents are Muslim.

Noor Ali, a student at Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology, started a petition earlier this year to make Eid al-Fitr a holiday in Gwinnett and quickly garnered 8,000 signatures.

ExploreMore stories about Gwinnett County Public Schools

The holiday marks the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. It’s celebrated with one to three days of feasting, gifts and prayer. Islam follows a lunar calendar, so the holiday doesn’t fall on the same date each year. Gwinnett students may take the day off as an excused absence, but Ali told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in April that if the day coincides with a test or exam, many students will go to school.

Johnson and Ali noted that districts across the country have added Eid al-Fitr and other cultural and religious holidays to their calendars.

“This is more than just any random day off. This is our one chance to be seen and recognized,” Ali said at a recent board meeting.