IMPERIAL BEACH, Calif. — Some California parents are upset after they say their children's elementary school abruptly canceled an annual Christmas tradition out of deference to families who do not observe the holiday.
For years, students at Oneonta Elementary School in Imperial Beach, California, had a December assembly featuring Christmas decorations, Christmas songs and a visit from Santa.
This year’s December assembly was held Friday without a Christmas show. Teachers learned of the change Wednesday, according to Jose Cariman, a parent of a sixth-grader at the school.
“No notice to the parents. No notice to the teachers, no advance notice for anything,” he said. “What are they teaching (the students)? Are they teaching them that Christmas is not allowed to be celebrated?”
Video from the assembly in 2018 shows children in Santa hats singing Christmas songs on a stage decorated with the words “Merry Christmas” in at least four languages.
Sixth-grade student Alexis Sandoval said she was disappointed by the change, particularly for her younger siblings.
“It was just super sad because we’re always used to having a nice, fun Christmas party, and now we just can’t have a party for some reason,” she said, noting the school began scaling back aspects of its holiday celebration last year.
Oneonta has a new principal, David Trautman, who joined the school in July 2018, according to his LinkedIn page. Trautman declined to comment and referred questions to the South Bay Union School District.
“South Bay Union School District is dedicated to ensuring that all students, families, and staff feel welcome and included on our campuses and at all District facilities,” Superintendent Katie McNamara said in a statement.
McNamara said the district serves a diverse community with a variety of beliefs, both religious and secular, and provided the following guidance to school employees before the holiday season: “While teaching about religious holidays is a permissible part of the educational program, celebrating religious holidays is not allowed in public schools.”
“During the time of the year when major religious holidays are celebrated, it is important to remember that not everyone shares the beliefs of the majority,” she added.
Miriam Martinez, a parent of a second-grader, said she doesn’t understand why some schools in SBUSD went forward with Christmas-themed assemblies when the celebration at Oneonta was canceled.
“It’s upsetting because they look forward to it. And it’s unfortunate because not all of us can afford to take them to the mall to see Santa. So some of the kids just do it at school. This is where they get to tell Santa their Christmas list,” she said.
A district press release mentions an event at Mendoza Elementary called “Irish You a Merry Christmas.” The event was sponsored by outside groups and held on a Saturday.
A district spokesperson did not directly respond to a question about end-of-year assemblies at other schools.
“Schools and classrooms have been decorated and are reflective of seasonal themes and many schools have had numerous festive programs,” McNamara said in the statement.
Cariman and Martinez said they’d like to see Oneonta handle Christmas like it handles Halloween: parents who don’t want to participate can opt out and bring their child to school late.
Here is the full statement from McNamara:
"South Bay Union School District is dedicated to ensuring that all students, families, and staff feel welcome and included on our campuses and at all District facilities. This is particularly important during the holiday season as we serve a diverse community with varied beliefs, and faiths, both secular and religious.
"As a public school district, our primary role is education. In anticipation of the holiday season we provided employees with guidance per Education Code, our own Board Policies, and other sources. During the time of the year when major religious holidays are celebrated, it is important to remember that not everyone shares the beliefs of the majority. According to our District Policy, 'While teaching about religious holidays is a permissible part of the educational program, celebrating religious holidays is not allowed in public schools.'
"Schools and classrooms have been decorated and are reflective of seasonal themes and many schools have had numerous festive programs. Children in South Bay have been filled with the joy and happiness of the season while we promote welcoming and positive school cultures that are inclusive for every child."