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Council recommends city cancel classes on Muslim holy days

The City Council’s education committee voted today to recommend closing schools on two Muslim holy days observed by as many as 10 percent of the city’s schoolchildren. But the advisory vote is unlikely to change the city schools’ calendar, unless Mayor Bloomberg has a change of heart about slimming down the school year.

Several council members said during the vote this morning that they were conflicted about recommending that schools be closed for any length of time. But only one, Oliver Koppell of the Bronx, voted against the resolution during the main round of voting. Ten council members cast yes votes at that time, and at least three others added their yes votes as the committee continued its main hearing, on high school graduation requirements.

The vote followed a hearing nine months ago on the subject, when dozens of people testified in favor of having the days off and not a single person testified against them, committee chair Robert Jackson said today. Muslim families and religious leaders have been pushing for the holidays since 2006, when students were scheduled to take state tests on the first day of Eid Ul-Adha, one of Islam’s holiest days.

A handful of council members appeared not to struggle with their decision about how to vote today, saying “aye” without offering any explanation or painting their yes votes as a moral obligation.

“The question of religious observance is one that I myself would never want to mess with,” said Helen Diane Foster of the Bronx. “Who am I to say that someone else’s holiday is not just as important to them?”

But most council members said they were conflicted about balancing religious observance with the need to maximize learning time in the city’s schools.

Simcha Felder of Brooklyn said schools should always honor notes from religious leaders excusing students from school, but that schools should not close for religious holidays. “I am firmly opposed to schools closing for any religious observance, including the ones that exist,” he said. “Having said that, a situation exists now that is unfair. Now is not the time to change the system.”

The lone no vote came from Koppell, who said he was sympathetic to the needs of Muslim families but noted that there are many faiths represented in the city and students do not get the day off for most of them. “Given that our kids need more school days not less school days I vote no,” he said.

All of the deliberation could be for naught: Mayor Bloomberg has said repeatedly that he would not consider giving schoolchildren any more days off. Bills are pending in the Assembly and State Senate that would compel the city to make the two holy days school holidays, but the bills have been proposed before and have never gotten out of committee.

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