How schools can better accommodate Muslim students during Ramadan
Imagine having your first meal of the day by sunrise and not eating any food or drinking anything again – including water – until sunset. Now imagine doing all of that while being in school. That’s what Muslim students around the world are doing in observance of Ramadan, one of the five pillars of Islam and the ninth month of the Islamic Lunar Calendar.
In addition to fasting if they are able to (certain individuals are exempt, such as those with chronic or acute health concerns), Muslims also spend the holy month engaging in prayer, being in community and donating to charity if they have the means.
Muslim students often experience a variety of obstacles during the month of Ramadan if they are attending academic institutions that are not familiar with Muslim religious practices, said Farhan Memon, chairperson of the Connecticut chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest Muslim civil rights group in the United States.
“They can be tired, especially as the day goes on into the afternoon, having not had some water to drink during the day, so their concentration may be off,” Memon said. “They may not be able to participate in athletic activity. Also, they might not feel comfortable being in a lunchroom ... where their classmates are eating and drinking, and they’re not.”
Dr. Ray Cooper, principal of Madina Academy, a private Islamic school in Windsor for grades pre-K through 12,the Madina Academy confirmed a change in the behavior of students who fast.
“At 8 o’clock, we see a lot of tired faces coming through the door, where students are coming in a little bit tired of, you know, making the morning prayer, and then having to turn around an hour to two hours later and get up and come to school. So we do see a decreased performance in our students who are coming in tired,” Cooper said. “They usually wake up and get full swing after they get learning in their lessons.”
To accommodate students, Madina Academy has lowered the intensity of exercises in physical education classes for those who are fasting and made changes to the daily schedule for the month.
“We have a normal start at 8 a.m., but we end school two hours earlier, so we get out at 1:30 instead of 3:30,” Cooper said. “A lot of our students and families appreciate this tailored schedule.”
Students can get tired as the day goes on, Cooper said, so the early dismissal allows them to go home and rest up to get ready for iftar — the breaking of the fast.
Memon said CAIR sent letters to school boards prior to Ramadan to make them aware of accommodations students may need. He said educators need to recognize that students who are fasting may be tired, a little irritable or slower to answer questions. “Also for them to be mindful about how they [assign] work during this month,” Memon said. “Additionally, students may want to pray in schools, and certainly we think that schools should be offering them a safe, clean place to pray.”
Cooper suggested making alternative spaces available to Muslim students during lunchtime, perhaps with the option of educational games, so that fasting students do not have to be in the cafeteria where other students are eating and drinking.
Muslim college students can also benefit from accommodations on campus. Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, has provided academic and religious accommodations as needed for its Muslim students, according to Nur Khan, co-president of the Trinity College Muslim Students Association.
“If you have a quiz, or a test or an exam or anything like that during Ramadan, there are academic accommodations to allow you to take them either in the morning or at nighttime after we break our fast,” Khan said.
Khan said Chartwells Dining Services at Trinity offers food for both suhoor (the pre-dawn meal) and the iftar meal.
“They’ll give us individual portions of food for iftar. And when they give us our iftar, they also give us our suhoor. So they’ll give us a sandwich and an apple and some yogurt and honestly, whatever we really ask of them.”
Along with institution-level accommodations, Khan also spoke of feeling supported when her non-Muslim roommates join her in conversation or eat food with her when she ends her fast at sunset — especially given that she is spending the holiday far from her family.
Now roughly halfway through the holy month, Ramadan will end on either April 21 or April 22, depending on the sighting of the moon, which will indicate when the 10th month of the Islamic Lunar Calendar begins and the month of Ramadan ends.
However, the fight for accommodations does not end. To mark the closing of Ramadan, Muslims will celebrate Eid al-Fitr.
Memon, with the Connecticut chapter of the CAIR, said that means students often have to choose between going to school or celebrating Eid with their families.
“We've had occasions when there’s been a test or an assignment that’s been due on Eid, or the day after,” Memon said. “So both during Ramadan as well as at the end of Ramadan, there are issues that Muslim students face as they try to balance practicing their religion with continuing their day-to-day education.”
Khan said last Eid she had an exam, even after emailing her professor and explaining that the holiday is “like Muslim Christmas.”
“No one would ever be having an exam on Christmas because they would be at home, that’s always a school holiday, but me and one of my friends actually spent the whole night before Eid in the library and spent the majority of Eid morning in the library before we had our exam,” Khan said.
When asked what makes Muslims feel supported during Ramadan beyond institutional accommodations, Cooper suggested donating to food pantries as well as providing dates for people to eat, which is one of the foods Muslims eat to end their fast.
Khan, who is an international student from Singapore, said non-Muslims, such as her roommates, understand that the emphasis on community during the holy month makes a difference.
“If I’m just breaking my fast alone, for whatever reason, my roommates will always take the time to stop and sit down with me and be with me while I’m eating, and like most of the time they’ll eat something themselves too.”