A view of San Francisco Unified School District's Mission High School from Dolores Park. (Photo/Flickr-Don Barrett CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
A view of San Francisco Unified School District's Mission High School from Dolores Park. (Photo/Flickr-Don Barrett CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

San Francisco school board votes to close schools on two Muslim holidays

UPDATED: Aug. 17, 10:20 a.m.

The San Francisco school board voted Tuesday to recognize two Muslim holidays and close schools and administrative offices on those days beginning in the 2023-2024 school year.

Arab activist and community groups, including representatives from San Francisco’s Arab Resource and Organizing Center, celebrated the decision.

“This resolution demonstrates that racial justice is not just a value,” AROC executive director Lara Kiswani wrote in a statement. “But something that must be an everyday priority and practice in San Francisco Unified School District.”

A social justice nonprofit that advocates for Arab and Muslim communities in the Bay Area, AROC is controversial among some Jews because of its anti-Israel advocacy.

Per the resolution, the district will close on the two holiest days on the Muslim calendar: Eid al-Fitr, the festival held at the conclusion of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, or the “Feast of Sacrifice,” a holiday that commemorates the binding of Isaac during which observant Muslims attend prayers, wear new clothes and exchange gifts.

If the holidays fall on a weekend, school will not be in session either the day before or the day after.

The initiative has raised eyebrows among some members of the Jewish community. San Francisco schools close for the Lunar New Year, Juneteenth and Cesar Chavez Day, but not for any Jewish holidays. Schools are closed on Christmas, which falls during winter break.

Though absences for religious observance are excused per state law, many Jewish students who miss a day to attend Yom Kippur services, for example, risk falling behind.

“In a district where Jews have felt somewhat sidelined and invisible, this kind of reinforces that,” Jewish Community Relations Council executive director Tye Gregory said in an interview. He named the school board’s 2021 effort to rename Dianne Feinstein Elementary School as an example of an action that alienated the city’s Jews. That effort, centered on allegations of racism against the now 89-year-old senator, ultimately failed last year when the board abandoned its plan to rename nearly four dozen public schools for related reasons.

Though absences for religious observance are excused per state law, many Jewish students who miss a day to attend Yom Kippur services, for example, risk falling behind.

Gregory said JCRC is not opposed to closing schools for Muslim holidays. But he said it raises questions about fairness. “Why do you elevate some community holidays and not others that have significant minority populations?” he said.

The decision has also raised legal questions. Robert De Vries, a real estate attorney in San Francisco, said he was shocked by the school board’s decision and argued it runs afoul of the state constitution. In an Aug. 15 letter to district officials he pointed to legal decisions in 1976, when a California appeals court determined public closures for Good Friday constituted an “excessive entanglement with religion,” and a state Supreme Court decision in 1978 that asserted the California constitution prohibits showing preference for one religion over another, “even when there is no discrimination.”

“Here, there is a clear preference for one religion (Islam) over all others,” De Vries’ letter said. “While the schools will be closed twice for Muslim holidays, there are no closings for Hindu, Jewish, Bahai, Jain, Buddhist, Christian or any other religious holidays.” 

Board members Kevine Boggess, Jenny Lam, Matt Alexander and Lisa Weissman-Ward all voted in favor of the measure, AROC reported, and Ann Hsu voted against. No members of the school board responded to J. requests for comment. 

San Francisco is not the first American city to shutter schools on Muslim holy days. New York City was the first major metropolis to close for Eid, which it decided to do in 2015, following districts in Massachusetts, Michigan and New Jersey, according to the New York Times. Montgomery County, a sprawling school district outside Washington, D.C., has for years not scheduled classes on Eid; the district also closes for two Jewish holidays, the Lunar New Year and several days around Christmas and Easter, according to NPR. New York City has for decades also closed schools on Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah and Passover.

Supporters of the SFUSD resolution say it will make Muslim students feel more included in public schools and prevent them from missing important school deadlines because of their religious observance. The measure also “foster[s] an environment of diversity and tolerance,” the text of the resolution says.

On Aug. 10, the S.F.-based JCRC sent a letter to new SFUSD Superintendent Matt Wayne requesting a meeting. The letter was shared with J.

“We admire and respect the advocacy efforts of the San Francisco Muslim community, and Muslim students in the district in particular, working toward better representation and recognition in SFUSD schools,” the letter reads. “We question whether adding district holidays for each minority community is the best way to foster greater inclusivity.”

JCRC asked the district to “address publicly” the issue of inequity as soon as possible.

The resolution did not say how many Muslim students are enrolled in SFUSD, only that Islam “is the world’s second-largest religion with 1.9 billion followers.” 

Data for the number of Arab Americans living in San Francisco was not immediately available (Arabs are categorized as white in the U.S. census). A 2013 demographic study estimated there were about 250,000 Muslims living in the Bay Area, of which about 3 percent lived in San Francisco. The study, commissioned by the One Nation Bay Area Project, said the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood in particular had concentrations of Yemeni, Iraqi, Moroccan, Algerian, Indonesian and Malaysian Muslims.

A 2018 study from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation estimated around 350,000 Jews living in the Bay Area, of which roughly 17 percent lived in San Francisco.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.