AUGUSTA — A new policy to highlight religious holidays — though not create any new days off — is scheduled for discussion Wednesday by the school board.

The policy would include religious holidays for Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus on the school calendar so teachers and school administrators can try to avoid scheduling events on those days.

The new policy proposed by an interfaith group of area residents also specifies that missing a school day to celebrate a religious holiday shall be considered an excused absence, although that provision was already in existing school policies in Augusta. The policy states that while planning school events school administrators and teachers shall take religious holidays into consideration “to the best of their abilities.”

At the interfaith group’s urging, Regional School Unit 38 in the Maranacook area, Winthrop schools and Hallowell-based Regional School Unit 2 passed similar policies earlier this year.

The idea behind the policy, proponents said, is to include the holidays for multiple, including minority, faiths on the school calendar so teachers and school officials can try to avoid scheduling events such as field trips and step-up days on those days.

“It’s an empowering policy that gives the administrators and teachers knowledge about holidays so they can take that into account, and I think it’s also a very important message of inclusion and respect,” said Rabbi Erica Asch, of Temple Beth El in Augusta, one of the leaders of the interfaith group who worked to get school boards to consider the policy. “It’s really about helping schools best serve students. It’s really exciting for us and the community.”

The Augusta school board first took up the policy at an August meeting attended by about 70 people, many of whom advocated for it to be passed. One mother, whose family is Muslim, said her two daughters who attended Lincoln Elementary School had missed school activities — such as step-up day, when students have a chance to meet their teachers for the next year — because those activities took place on religious holidays. Step-up day took place on Eid al-Fitr, a holiday marking the end of Ramadan.

Board members referred it to their policy committee. The policy committee made some revisions to the policy and voted, 3-0 last week, to bring it to the full school board for a potential vote Wednesday.

“Everyone in this room has our students’ best interests at heart,” Staci Fortunato, Ward 1 school board member and leader of the policy committee, said before last week’s vote. “We heard you and appreciate the feedback, positive and negative. I hope this continues to be an open conversation. It has been emotional for everyone.”

Asch said the revised policy in Augusta still accomplishes what the group set out to do and should help students who practice those religions.

The policy notes it is the responsibility of parents or guardians to provide an advance notice of a student’s absence for observance of a religious holiday. That provision drew extensive debate on the committee last week.

Chris Clarke, Ward 2 board and policy committee member, said the school system should consider defining what “advance notice” would suffice.

He said if teachers don’t know ahead of time that a student might be out the following week because of a religious holiday, they might schedule activities for that day.

“My thinking is teachers of this school district want to accommodate as much as they can, so I’d want to say advance notice is, say, seven days,” Clarke said. “So everybody can accommodate what needs to be accommodated. If we don’t, there is going to be a teacher that doesn’t know and will schedule something, and someone will get upset.”

However, his fellow committee members saw no need to define how much advance notice is required. They said teachers and parents already communicate regularly. Fortunato said that could be discussed by the full school board, if desired, but that the policy had been written, reviewed by an attorney and was ready to go to the board.

The school board is scheduled to consider the new policy at its 7 p.m. meeting Wednesday, in council chambers at Augusta City Center.

Augusta has become considerably more diverse in recent years with the addition of refugees from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, many of them Muslim, who have settled in the city.

The policy also states that students who are fasting for religious purposes will be allowed to spend lunch time outside of the cafeteria; teachers will take religious dietary restrictions into consideration when scheduling class activities that involve food; and that students may request a private or semi-private place to pray or for quiet reflection during times when they are not in scheduled classes, such as recess, lunch breaks or study halls, and the school department will provide access to such spaces if they are available.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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