Schools struggle to accommodate the religious needs of Muslim students during Ramadan

The month marks the holy month of Ramadan, a time of fasting and prayer for millions of Muslims in the United States. But it can also bring challenges for students and parents trying to navigate school and religious observance. NewsHour’s Roby Chavez, who has been reporting on this topic from New Orleans, joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, this month marks the holy month of Ramadan, a time of fasting and prayer for Muslims around the world.

    But here in the United States, it can also bring challenges for students and parents trying to navigate both school and religious observance.

    "NewsHour"'s Roby Chavez has been reporting on this topic from New Orleans, and he joins me now.

    Roby, it is good to see you.

    You have been talking to students and to parents there who are seeking some kind of accommodations from those schools. What exactly are they asking for, and what is the response they have been getting from school leaders?

  • Roby Chavez:

    Yes, Amna, parents have been involved in an e-mail campaign trying to get the Louisiana Department of Education to issue some sort of guidance for practicing Muslim students to have accommodations during Ramadan.

    Now, some of the things that they're looking for, they would like to have some private space for students when they might have three minutes of prayer or need to be away from other students when other students are eating. They want some flexibility in testing.

    They also would like some diversity training, so that other students understand the cultural differences at the school. At this point, the Louisiana Department of Education and the superintendent, Cade Brumley, has refused to issue guidance to the state's schools, except to say that this is up to the districts on the district level.

    So, that has left a lot of problems for parents, because what we end up seeing is that parents are having to ask for these accommodations at the classroom level. And so some parents may be getting those accommodations. Others may not.

    So, when you leave it up in the air without specific guidance and taking a leadership role, it leaves a patchwork of policy. And, in many cases, students are not getting those accommodations.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Roby, in places where those accommodations are not in place, what are you hearing from students and parents that the impact of that is?

  • Roby Chavez:

    Look, it's tough on the students. As you know, when you're fasting, you're not eating or drinking any water from the time that the sun comes up in the morning.

    That's particularly challenging for students in the classroom. And so it's very hard for them to concentrate. They can't participate in physical activities, because they might get exhausted, particularly in the Louisiana heat.

    And on the bigger picture, it's taking an emotional toll, because these students then have to balance their academics with their religion. And, in some cases, the students and parents that we talked to, students are either hiding that they're fasting or just not participating in it at all.

    And, now, when compared to other faiths, it's been a struggle for Muslim students and their families to fight for holiday accommodations. In New York City, Muslim students make up about 10 percent of the public schools. Students there have had Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur off since the '60s.

    But two major Muslim holidays of Eid, they were just added in the last six years. And so you can see the slow progress here. And, keep in mind, religion, by some statistics show, is extremely important to young Muslim students. And 72 percent of Muslim parents send their kids to public schools.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Roby, what about the rest of the country? I mean, what are some of the rules that are in place in other places that schools have to abide by to make those kinds of accommodations?

  • Roby Chavez:

    Well, Amna, we talked to the Council for American Islamic Relations, or CAIR. They're one of the leading advocacy organizations that kind of tracks these issues for the Muslim community.

    What they tell us is that this is still a problem across the country, though the numbers of students go into public schools is very hard to track. It's very hard to know how many are getting accommodations as well. But what they do tell us, it's a problem. And they say it's a work in progress and more work, indeed, needs to be done.

    What they also say is that what is happening here in Louisiana tracks what they see across the country. So in areas that you have larger Muslim populations, it's much easier for those public school students to get those accommodations.

    But, in rural areas, much like Louisiana, where you don't have a large population, those accommodations are much tougher to get. And that's exactly what we're seeing on the ground.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is "NewsHour"'s Roby Chavez reporting for us from New Orleans.

    Roby, thank you so much. Good to see you.

  • Roby Chavez:

    Thank you.

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