Governor’s new task force will consider changing calendars and offering different meal options for Virginia schools.

RICHMONDㅡJonathan Zur believes all students should feel a sense of belonging in Virginia schools. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. 

“Sadly, religious and ethnic minorities are often made to feel different when they have to choose whether or not they can observe a religious holiday on a school day,” he said. “Or when school meals are not sensitive to dietary restrictions.” 

That’s where Zur and the rest of a recently launched task force come in. On June 17, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam launched the Task Force on Culturally Inclusive School Meals and Calendars. Their assignment is to figure out ways schools can be more inclusive. 

Heidi Hertz currently serves as the deputy secretary of Agriculture and Forestry in Northam’s administration, while also working on the task force. She said that this project is part of the administration’s larger efforts at increasing inclusivity throughout the Commonwealth.

“If we’re able to show students that their cultural preferences are important, we’re also showing them that they are important,” she said.

That type of distinction is important to residents like Aanya Hendrix. The 36-year-old Pittsylvania County native and her husband are both practicing Hindus. She said they appreciate a decision like this, especially as the Hindu Diwali celebration takes place on Nov. 4 this year. That’s a Thursday. And while local schools have been extremely accommodating for her two kids, Hendrix said, all districts aren’t like that. 

“We’ve been fortunate, but some of our friends in other parts of the state, they’ve had a different experience,” Hendrix said. “Something like this, if it’s statewide, could help a lot of families.” 

A Diverse Question For Virginia Schools

Now what exactly would change here? All cultures and religions have different holidays. Mrs. Hendrix just mentioned the Hindu festival of Diwali. It’s a time to celebrate the triumph of good over evil and is the religion’s most important holiday. But right now, it’s not something all districts give students a day off for. 

Should the state add more holidays to the state school calendar? Should events like Ash Wednesday, Eid al-Fitr, Yom Kippur, Diwali and the Lunar New Year be a day out of school for some or all students? Those are the type of questions this task force will take up. 

Some Virginia school districts already take their diverse student body into account when approving holidays. For example, schools in Henrico County observe Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Diwali, Eid al-Fitr and Juneteenth as holidays in addition to things like Christmas, New Year’s Day and Easter. 

But it changes from district to district. Compare Patrick County Public Schools to Henrico. Patrick County only observed Independence Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Day, Easter and Memorial Day this past school year. And that’s not to single out Patrick County. Dozens of districts across the state only observe the “expected” events. But that doesn’t take into account events celebrated by thousands of Jewish, Muslim and Hindu students, among other groups. 

Hurunnessa Fariad, a member of the task force, views its formation as a sign that Virginia is taking the needs of its diverse student population seriously. 

The Sterling resident also serves as the head of outreach at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society. 

“I’m hopeful the task force can bring the much needed changes into the schools so that each student feels accepted, respected and given the opportunity to be themselves by the accommodations provided to them by the Commonwealth of Virginia,” she said. “This will ensure that their educational process isn’t hindered by issues related to food or holidays.”

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What’s For Lunch? 

The task force has two assignments. First, to tackle questions about the yearly calendar, as we mentioned. Second, to look at school menus. Different religions and cultures have their own dietary restrictions. Northam’s order calls for the task force to “explore how school nutrition programs can ensure students have access to meals that suit their dietary constraints and honor their cultural practices.”

Hertz explained that further. The task force, she said, will help the Department of Education accomplish its goal of minimizing food insecurity and increasing student enrollment in school meal programs. 

Once the committee has established student meal needs, it will start to consider how divisions might go about expanding their options. For instance, they will try to identify organizations schools can partner with and see if certain items such as kosher meat can be obtained locally. 

These are decisions affecting hundreds of thousands of students each day. According to information collected by the Virginia Department of Education, the number of white students has fallen over the past 10 years while the number of students of color has risen. 

During the 2010-2011 school year, white students in Virginia totaled 678,026. Students of color, including American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black, Hispanic, Native Hawaian or Pacific Islander and non Hispanic, two or more races, totaled 574,240. 

During the 2020-2021 school year, white students totaled 580,619. That same year, students of color totaled 672,137. That means 

“Virginia’s schools benefit from increasing cultural, religious and ethnic diversity—this diversity is a great asset, but also presents a challenge as schools strive to serve students of a variety of backgrounds equitably and compassionately,” Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni said.

How Does It Work? 

Eighteen individuals have been appointed to the task force. They include students, parents, educators, local school division leaders, school nutrition experts, faith leaders and state government officials. Throughout this month and into July, meetings are being held on a biweekly basis. 

Once they finish putting together a list of recommendations, the group will present it to the Governor’s Children’s Cabinet in August. The cabinet is composed of superintendents, school nutrition directors, higher education representatives and school board members. 

It’s a challenge Zur and his colleagues appreciate. For years, he has served as the president and CEO of the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities. The organization helps schools, businesses and communities throughout Virginia work towards inclusion. He sees this task force as a step in the right direction. 

“It is my hope that the work of this task force can help school leaders become more aware of and sensitive to the rich diversity across Virginia,” Zur said. “And that we will see substantive actions that foster greater inclusion.”

Aila Boyd is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach her at info@vadogwood.com.

Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. You can reach him at brian@vadogwood.com.