Iowa City School Board plans to accommodate Muslim, Jewish students in the 2021 – 2022 school calendar

After three years of increased student advocacy and months of meetings with local religious leaders, the Iowa City School Board is proposing days off to accommodate Eid al-Fitr and Yom Kippur.


Jeff Sigmund

Iowa City Community School District sign 1725 North Dodge St.. As seen on Thursday, Oct.15, 2020.

Grace Hamilton, News Reporter

Northwest Junior High Student Reem Kirja is looking forward to the school board’s April 13 vote on approving days off for Eid al-Fitr in next year’s calendar after spending three years advocating for the school to build in additional time off for celebrating the holiday.

On March 19, the Iowa City School Board expressed unanimous support for approving two days off next year’s district calendar on the dates of the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur and Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr to account for the observances of student religious minorities. A final vote to approve the calendar will come at the board’s April 13 meeting.

District Superintendent Matt Degner said the school board discussed having a day off school and work for the district on Sept. 16 this year and May 3, 2022, to accommodate students and staff of Jewish and Islamic faith.

Next year on Sept. 16, people of the Jewish faith will celebrate Yom Kippur — an annual day of fasting and atonement marking the most important holiday in the Jewish tradition — according to the Jewish Virtual Library.

As stated by Muslim Aid, next year’s Eid al-Fitr celebration falls on May 3, 2022. The religious occasion is marked by the joining of loved ones and community to celebrate the conclusion of Ramadan, a month-long fast. The second Eid, Eid al-Adha will take place in July 2022.

Degner said since the fall, the district has met with Iowa City’s Muslim and Jewish communities to discuss arrangements for the important holidays they celebrate.

“We did meet with our two major minority religions, which would be our Jewish community and our Muslim community and talked to them about our calendar and things we’ve tried to do to be flexible,” Degner said. “They expressed some of their frustrations, [saying] even if we excused students from school, there’s still work that continues those days.”

As previously reported by The Daily Iowan, Kirja has been active in moving the discussion forward and said she has met with Degner at least three times this year.

Although Kirja is satisfied by the district’s emerging support for a no-school day on Eid al-Fitr, she said the calendar’s prospective acceptance following the school board’s upcoming public hearing would be especially meaningful.

“On April 13, they’re going to officially vote on the calendar after the public hearing, which I am so nervous about,” Reem said. “It’s literally on the first day of Ramadan, so if it gets approved, that would be like the best present for the holiest month — ever.”

Iowa City School Board President Shawn Eyestone said he felt there was unanimous support among all board members to approve the proposed calendar for the 2021 – 2022 academic year with no school or workdays on Sept. 16 and May 3.

“I think people are very clear that we can’t have every holiday of every religion across our district to have a day off,” Eyestone said. “But to try and accommodate some of our larger groups in our district by just placing days off in our calendar — which is not disruptive to the rest of the students — is a small thing that we can do to make life less stressful for some of our students.”

The calendar presented at the previous board meeting extended the year by two days to account for the no-school days on Sept. 16 and May 3, Eyestone added.

Although the school board will vote on approving days off for Sept. 16 and May 3 with specific religious populations in mind, Degner said the district would not recognize the no-school days as holidays on the calendar.

“We’re just calling it more of a no-school day because we don’t recognize holidays in our calendars,” Degner added. “Essentially, we didn’t think it was probably a good idea — if we were really serious about trying to give people of different cultures the space to do their celebrations — to bring in staff on those days either, and so we agreed on a no-school and no-work day on those two days.”

Regardless of the school board’s April 13 decision, Kirja said she is ecstatic to see the district vote on an issue she has advocated for for years.

“It feels extraordinary. Finally, it feels like it’s going to happen,” Kirja said. “It feels like I need to pinch myself, like, ‘Is this a dream or something like that? Do I need to wake up?'”