School Talk

Schools Cancel Halloween—Some Are Outraged (but I’m Not One of Them)

Some schools just outside Chicago have cancelled Halloween celebrations and parents aren’t having it. The reason given by school officials in Evanston, Illinois for the roll back of costumes and candy in school is a predictable one—it’s equity, of course. It has become a cult-like word in some education circles and the cause for endless eyerolls and frustration for others. Needless to say that the Halloween controversy is driving a lot of people’s eyes back into their heads—but it is also driving anger and claims that it hurts the very children it was intended to help.

An important disclaimer here seems appropriate: I pretty much hate Halloween. 

Second disclaimer: Other than during their pre-school years, my own children have not attended schools where dressing up in Halloween costumes and exchanging candy was even a thing. In my little corner of the universe, Halloween has been wholly disconnected from school and, if I’m being honest, I have always liked it that way.

But I get that traditional celebrations are valued by communities—cherished even— and that young students look forward to dressing up for Halloween at school if it’s all they’ve known. I also hear the argument that there are children who, often for religious reasons, do not celebrate Halloween. It appears that in the case of the schools in Evanston, Illinois, this is where they’ve decided the inequity lies. 

“As part of our school and district-wide commitment to equity, we are focused on building community and creating inclusive, welcoming environments for all,”

One angry parent in Evanston has put forth the argument that the decision has actually created more inequity, not less. She says that as a Bosnian and Muslim immigrant and refugee, Halloween was “a way to assimilate” and “be like the other kids.” She sees it as an important way for children from other countries to get to feel like the other kids and participate in, what she calls, a cultural American holiday. 

She also recalls that, with both of her parents working two jobs from morning til late at night, “celebrating Halloween at school was often the only taste she got of the holiday.”

They’re trying so hard to make everything inclusive that they’re excluding a lot of students. They’re excluding those kids from having a Halloween, or low-income kids whose families work crazy hours.

My heart is with this mother and I think her points about Halloween being an easy way to assimilate into American culture are powerful. But she goes too far for me when she asserts that it is somehow the school’s responsibility to provide an opportunity to celebrate Halloween—during the school day—for those students whose parents may not be able to take them out trick-or-treating or provide them with the experience of Halloween. 

It is not the school’s role to be a kid’s only Halloween. That is a ridiculous burden for a school and it pushes them way out of their teaching and learning lane. 

I completely understand why so many people’s visceral reaction to this story is negative. They are sick of hearing about “equity,” largely because they think it is being misused to eliminate the fun stuff like dodgeball, tag, home-baked birthday cupcakes, and field trips. Some would add school discipline and gifted programs to that list. 

But I don’t really see why kids are dressing up in Halloween costumes for school anyway. Maybe I’m biased because my own children’s elementary school never officially celebrated Halloweeen but Halloween has always seemed like an out-of-school event to me. When I went to elementary school in the late 70’s and early 80’s in Massachusetts, we did not dress up in Halloween costumes for school. 

But equity doesn’t have to be the reason to phase out the Halloween costumes. Can’t it be the loss of instruction and learning time that a day with kids in costumes and eating candy inevitably creates? If schools break from teaching and learning for every holiday, that adds up to a lot of time off-task. Loss of learning time seems like a far more relevant and powerful argument for a school to make than just throwing the ubiquitous “equity” word out into the ether. The good news is you’d be hard pressed to find a more quintessential equity issue than student learning so it’s a win for everybody—except those who really want their children’s school to celebrate Halloween. 

What do you think?

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