By Amber Kennedy

For most of modern public schooling, grade schools have marked holidays like Christmas and Easter with closures, special cafeteria meals and even in-class parties. But students whose families observe days of fast, religion-based food restrictions or other cultural holidays may have historically felt overlooked or marginalized. A state task force, which includes an Old Dominion University professor, is hoping to change that.

Qiu Jin Hailstork, director of the Institute of Asian Studies and associate professor of history, was one of 17 Virginians selected by Governor Ralph Northam to serve on the Task Force on Culturally Inclusive School Meals and Calendars. The task force spent the summer identifying best practices to equip schools to adopt inclusive calendars and serve meals that accommodate more dietary restrictions.

The ultimate goal, Hailstork said, is to help educators start from a place of understanding so that students feel safe to observe their cultural traditions.

"We need to raise awareness of cultural diversity and its importance, not just in K-12 school districts, but especially in institutions of higher education," she said. "We are the trainers of teachers, and we need to include cultural awareness in our curriculum so they can take that with them into schools."

The task force delivered its report to Northam in September, suggesting key recommendations for adoption:

  • Help schools understand the religious and cultural needs of their students, assess their cultural inclusivity practices and identify opportunities for growth.
  • Create culturally inclusive food pantries in partnership with local and faith-based organizations.
  • Recognize schools that implement innovative and inclusive meal and calendar practices.

"When schools acknowledge and celebrate diverse cultures, customs and cuisines, it strengthens the sense of belonging in school communities," Northam said in a press release. "I am pleased with the task force's work to identify ways to support healthy, compassionate learning environments for students."

The task force recommends schools seek public input to ensure the religions and cultures of each community's students are represented in their academic calendars. While it would not be possible for schools to be closed for all religious holidays, the task force does encourage schools and institutions of higher education to provide opportunities to celebrate days that are important to their cultural traditions without any threat of violating absence policies.

In addition, the task force outlined ways cafeterias can expand meal offerings and recognize religious cultural holidays that, to date, have not always been acknowledged on school calendars.

In the process of developing the report, Hailstork thought about one holiday in particular that illustrates how challenging it can be to recognize and honor the diversity within a cultural group. "For me, it's very natural to call it Chinese New Year, but that's not necessarily true for the Vietnamese or Koreans, who call it Lunar New Year," she said. "Even among Asian Americans, there's a wide variety of experiences and influences."

Recognizing those differences within the Asian American communities may be necessary for some school districts with significant Asian American populations, while others around the state may find they have a sizable number of Muslim or Latinx students whose cultural celebrations should be honored.

At the higher education level, Hailstork would like to see faculty continue to diversify their curriculums, and ensure multicultural awareness is a cornerstone of general education requirements.

"We need to really train our students here, instead of relying on additional training after graduation," she said. "We need to prepare our students for the future."

The task force concluded its work upon delivery of its report, but the state will soon explore how the recommendations can be implemented. Read the full report here.

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