The Cowichan Valley school district is addressing the problem of how to integrate religious holidays into the school year.
Schools superintendent Joe Rhodes explained at the Nov. 5 board meeting that Policy 4420 (Cultural Recognition Policy Guidelines) is now in schools.
"We secured, through some legal assistance, creation of a document to provide guidelines on secular versus religious activities. We brought that to advisory, got some feedback and also took it to the District Parent Advisory Council and got some feedback and recommendations," he said.
There was a problem last year at an elementary school that escalated to the point where a teacher lost her job, causing angry supporters to demonstrate in March outside the school district offices.
Now that the December school concert season is on the way again, Rhodes explained that it was considered necessary to act.
"Given the timing of the year and the sensitivity around the winter season, it’s my pleasure to announce that we will be enacting those guidelines and that we will be working with the Cowichan Intercultural Society to try to activate the recommendations from the district parent advisory council in terms of a greater variety of secular activities across a greater variety of religions as well as incorporating cultural and religious ceremonies from First Nations," he said.
The document is a starting place, with room for expansion he said.
"It is intended to be a growing, living document but it’s a great first step. We’ve got very positive feedback from the principals’ association and from DPAC as well as from the advisory committee," Rhodes said.
"We presented it at our last principals’ meeting and that’s being activated in all our schools at this point."
"I appreciate the response from DPAC and I also appreciate that this is a living document," said Trustee Mike McKay. "The guidelines and the framework that underlie it are solid but some of the examples will evolve over time as examples need to. It’s an important step and will be clear and helpful to everyone."
The multicultural recognition policy still sets out to recognize a school community’s multicultural nature and rich heritage "through respectful practices that foster a sense of belonging and being welcomed."
Self-esteem and pride in heritage are important parts of this, it says, but also adds that it is necessary to "acknowledge cultural events, festivals and celebrations in a respectful manner that promotes understanding of diversity".
If necessary, an accommodation plan can be developed and written to deal with specific situations that arise.
On the subject of cultural events and celebrations, some written guiding principles have been introduced.
Schools are expected to acknowledge cultural events, festivals and celebrations "in a respectful manner that promotes understanding of diversity" by using classroom discussion as well as activities connected with cultural events.
"The purpose of these discussions and activities is to promote cultural understanding consistent with the secular mandate of the public school system," the guidelines say.
There are some specific details on the subject of secular versus religious recognition, calling on schools to use holiday decorations and activities that include secular symbols associated with holidays or cultural festivals, with the aim of reflecting diversity within schools.
"Secular" means non-religious in nature.
Some holidays, such as Kwanzaa, are secular in origin – not connected to a particular religious faith. Some other holidays such as Christmas have religious origins but are also celebrated as secular holidays, the guidelines say.
The idea is to allow celebrations, but to do it in a secular manner.
Some examples of secular symbols associated with Christmas include Santa Claus, Christmas trees, candy canes, gifts, lights, poinsettias, snowflakes, and bells. Songs such as Frosty the Snowman and Jingle Bells are secular because they do not have a religious basis. In contrast, a nativity scene depicting the birth of Jesus or Christmas carols about the birth of Jesus such as Silent Night or Joy to the World are religious in origin.
At Easter, secular symbols could include bunnies, ducklings and Easter eggs as compared to religious symbols like the cross or anything depicting the death or resurrection of Christ.
A secular symbol associated with Hanukkah is the dreidel. In contrast, the menorah is predominantly considered a religious symbol.
A secular symbol associated with Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) is apples and honey which represents the hope for a sweet new year while a ram’s horn (shofar) is a religious symbol.
"The district will add more examples to include additional cultural events, festivals and celebrations as the need arises," according to the guidelines.