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Halloween, ‘harvest festival’ or nothing at all? At local schools, celebrations are all over the map

Some schools are all in on Halloween. But others have chosen to downplay it, skipping celebrations altogether or hosting "harvest festivals" in a nod to students who don't mark Oct. 31 as anything special.

In this file photo, a 6-year-old Batman celebrates Halloween.
In this file photo, a 6-year-old Batman celebrates Halloween.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Some schools are all in for Halloween, with parades, classroom parties, and costume contests.

But others have chosen to downplay the holiday, either skipping celebrations or hosting "harvest festivals" or alternate parties, in a nod to students who don't mark Oct. 31 as anything special. In an increasingly diverse nation, there's growing awareness that some families don't view the holiday as a harmless fall tradition.

Around the region and across the country, some have interpreted the holiday as having religious connotations and therefore being inappropriate for public schools. That's ruffled some feathers. Others worry about students who don't have the means to buy costumes, about the message of potentially bringing toy weapons to school as part of costumes, about food allergies, about kids with sensory issues, or about the logistics of teachers getting kids in and out of costumes and having a school day taken over by Halloween.

Locally, schools are all over the map.

Megan Lello, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia School District, said she knows of no system-wide policy about Halloween celebrations, but said the practice "is always to provide consideration and other opportunities for students who are not participating in certain holiday events, and to communicate cultural competence no matter the holiday."

At Sheridan Elementary in Kensington, children will have a Literacy Day parade, dressing up as characters from their favorite books in a school-wide celebration of reading — a move a number of schools will make as a way to keep the focus off a holiday not everyone celebrates.

"We're in an area that's not the best after dark," said Lisa Sandner, the school's head literacy teacher, explaining why some students don't celebrate Halloween. "For some kids, it's religious reasons. They'll say, 'I'm going to church on Halloween night.'"

In the past, large numbers of Sheridan parents would keep their children at home on Halloween, and Sandner and principal Awilda Balbuena wanted to find a way to get kids excited to come to school if the holiday wasn't their thing.

Wednesday will be the first Literacy Day at Sheridan. (In the past, "we would do Fall Fest, Harvest Fest, anything that's not Halloween," Balbuena said.)

The buzz for the alternate event is mounting throughout the K-4 school, the principal said, with classes making their costumes in school, inspired by favorite books — The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Mrs. Nelson Is Missing, Curious George.

"Everyone is so excited," said Balbuena.

But in some places, Halloween still reigns.

Beeler Elementary in Marlton is "gung-ho for Halloween," said Lainie Andrews, whose son is a second grader there. There was a pumpkin-carving event last week, and on Halloween morning, there will be a "trunk or treat" — parked cars with trunks decorated for the holiday, filled with candy — then class Halloween parties. Everyone, including teachers, comes in costume.

At Tawanka Elementary in Feasterville, there are plenty of festivities, but most occur outside of school, said Debby Disandro, the Parent Teacher Organization president. The PTO sponsors a Halloween roller-skating party and a pumpkin fest at a local farm with corn maze and bonfire, all outside of school hours. During the school day, there will be no parade, costumes or candy.

"The teachers and administration tried to figure out what was best," said Disandro. "There's a lot of kids who don't celebrate, and we didn't want them to feel left out, and we have so many allergy issues, too. It's not like when we were kids."

During the school day, the PTO will sell pumpkin pretzels, and some classes may have a "party in a bag," Disandro said — basically, teachers allowing students to enjoy a special snack they bring from home.

Anne Frank Elementary, a public school in Northeast Philadelphia, has a school-wide costume parade, with students who don't celebrate the holiday gathering in another spot for non-Halloween activities. Meredith Elementary in Queen Village has a kindergarten parade, harvest or Halloween classroom parties, and a middle-school dance with spooky music.

Plenty of parents are just fine with schools that have moved away from overt Halloween celebrations in class — less sugar, fewer allergy worries, and, if it's a holiday they celebrate, they can still do so at home.

But others are unsettled by the change that's taken hold over the past decade or so.

Kimberly Greer-Rivera, whose son is a fourth grader at Mayfair Elementary in the Northeast, laments the fact that there's no Halloween festivities at his school.

"I just think all religions and holidays should be taught," said Greer-Rivera, who grew up celebrating Halloween in Philadelphia schools. "He's missing out, and it needs to change."