This Valentine's Day, not all students will be snacking on heart-shaped cookies, giggling at candy hearts or exchanging carefully scribbled cards.

Principal Scott Masini of St. Paul's Bruce Vento Elementary School announced to staff that the school is banning celebration of "dominant holidays" — including Valentine's Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas — to strive for more cultural sensitivity among its heavily nonwhite student body. The announcement wasn't mailed to parents before it was leaked to social media Wednesday night, touching off the latest debate about what, if any, celebrations kids should be having in their classrooms.

Across the metro area and the country, schools are juggling sensitivity with holiday fun as student bodies become increasingly diverse. Several schools have turned to seasonal celebrations to include all students, and some have scaled back in-class celebrations to save teaching time.

The Vento school is echoing that rationale in its decision to stop celebrating major holidays, to avoid "encroaching on the educational opportunities of others and threatening a culture of tolerance and respect for all," Masini said in the letter addressed to families. "My personal feeling is we need to find a way to honor and engage in holidays that are inclusive of our student population."

Masini was cheered and jeered by people online. Some said fun was being sucked out of schools. He responded in a comment released by the school district Thursday. "I'm struggling with this and I don't know what the right answer is," he said. "But, what I do know is celebrating some holidays and not others is not inclusive of all of the students we serve.

Bruce Vento ban

Masini's letter surfaced Wednesday evening on an invitation-only Facebook page titled "Supporting St. Paul Students and Teachers," which was started by parents two years ago in connection with teacher contract talks. By daybreak Thursday, there were dozens of comments on the page.

"Very sad. All the fun is gone," read one post. "Totally ridiculous," and "Tired of the PC," read two others.

The letter wasn't sent home Thursday; after conversations with district leaders, Masini decided to wait before talking to parents, the district said.

School board policy "discourages programs and festivities that celebrate observances" unless mandated by law, according to a St. Paul Public Schools statement.

Most metro-area schools don't ban celebrations to the extent that Masini's letter outlines.

Nationally, some schools have decided to forgo Halloween celebrations, including schools in New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, citing concerns for student inclusivity. Thomas Scarice, a superintendent in Connecticut, thinks schools should celebrate holidays, while remaining sensitive.

"Children are predisposed to have fun, and once we take those opportunities away, learning suffers," Scarice said. "While being sensitive to backgrounds of all different folks, I think school should be a place that children want to run into every morning rather than run out of out of every day at 3 p.m."

Elsewhere in St. Paul, two principals take different approaches to the Valentine's Day question.

"We discourage it, but we know our communities well, and it may be happening — at a teacher's discretion," said Angelica Van Iperen, principal of Wellstone Elementary on the city's North End.

At Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet on the East Side, Principal Catherine Rich said the school tries to use such occasions for academic purposes — for example, kindergartners cutting out paper hearts as part of a "how to" exercise. The school also respects a child's right to share, Rich said, but a teacher may limit treats for health reasons.

Sensitivity adaptations

Decisions in metro districts are being made on a case-by-case basis.

Wayzata Public Schools no longer observes specific holidays, opting instead for seasonal celebrations, said spokeswoman Amy Parnell. Valentine's Day is the only exception — certain schools still decide to recognize the holiday.

"It's very generic," Parnell said. "We're sensitive to being inclusive, but do feel that these celebrations are important for building a sense of community in our schools."

Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan schools have also shifted from holiday parties to seasonal parties: a harvest party around Halloween, and a winter party near the start of winter break, said spokesman Tony Taschner.

The district eliminated student birthday parties a few years ago to ensure inclusiveness, meaning no more goodies brought into classrooms on special days, Taschner said.

Some schools are opting to curb treat-trading in classrooms around the holidays to save instructional time.

At Hopkins schools, there are friendship celebrations on Valentine's Day that mesh with curriculum, said spokeswoman Jolene Goldade. The district has moved away from holiday parties during school hours, she said.

Osseo prioritizes learning time, said district spokeswoman Barb Olson, so time spent on celebrations is "way reduced from the old days."

At Eastern Carver County Schools, said district spokesman Brett Johnson, "It's really left up to the building leader in ensuring that they can run the school day efficiently and making sure that any recognition of a holiday doesn't distract from the educational day."

But holiday supporters say there's merit to students decorating Valentine box holders and swapping treats. William Beeman, chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, encouraged widely accepted celebrations, such as an observation of the seasons or recognition for students' accomplishments.

"It's very difficult to eliminate all celebrations from human society, and finding a reason for celebration is a terribly important human function because it creates social solidarity," he said. "And we don't want our schools to be a grim place, where there's never any fun, never any community building."

Staff writers Paul Walsh and Anthony Lonetree contributed to this report.

Zoë Peterson is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.

Beena Raghavendran • 612-673-4569