California Middle School’s annual Cal-O-Ween event brings families together to celebrate the spooky season. But it was suddenly canceled this year, and then briefly scheduled again, sparking frustration among some parents and students who were preparing for the event.

School leaders now say there isn’t enough time to put on a quality event at the Land Park school.

The event, which was scheduled for Oct. 30 — after classes ended — was planned with social distancing in mind to comply with Sacramento County coronavirus restrictions. In past years, families were invited to play carnival games, win prizes and walk through a “haunted hallway.” Some students have even spent the night supervised by adults.

Due to COVID-19, organizers shifted to a drive-thru parade this year, where cars could drive by McClatchy High School and Cal Middle — both of which were planning to participate in the celebration.

But in a sudden decision, just weeks before the event, Cal Middle School’s principal announced it would be canceled. It isn’t clear exactly why it was canceled.

In an email sent to families, Principal Richard Haley said the decision to cancel the event and all Halloween-related activities was due to “safety concerns and to ensure alignment with district board policy on religiously affiliated events.”

“I know that Cal-O-Ween has been a long established Cal Middle tradition and it breaks our hearts that we have to cancel it this year,” Haley stated in the letter. “Next year, I promise that we will work collaboratively to design an event that upholds this Cal tradition and is also aligned to board policy and district directives. I apologize for the disappointment that this cancellation will likely cause. I was very much looking forward to celebrating with our families.”

Days later, Cal Middle PTO members were told that the district would approve the event. School leaders decided to forgo plans to continue.

A spokeswoman for the Sacramento City Unified School District said the district did not order the event to be shut down. Spokeswoman Tara Gallegos said that schools must ensure they are meeting health and safety guidelines outlined by the district when holding drive-thru events due to concerns regarding the coronavirus pandemic.

The district said that the principal and organizers chose to postpone the event and a host a winter-themed event to ensure they could meet those safety guidelines.

In addition to safety concerns, Haley also cited the district’s policy related to religious holidays that says, “Whereas teaching about religious holidays is a permissible part of the educational program, celebrating religious holidays is not allowed in the public schools. School-sponsored programs shall not be, nor have the effect of being, religiously oriented or a religious celebration.”

Events can be seasonal in theme, but not religious in nature. According to the district, that includes costumes or decorations that would violate a student’s religious beliefs or cause a student to be excluded from an event.

PTO President David Wiest said the decision to cancel the event caught him by surprise.

“I want to know what the guidelines are – not so I can argue them, but to be able to plan other events that would meet the districts’ guidelines on safety and other issues,” he said.

Wiest said he had no knowledge of concerns or complaints about school events conflicting with religious beliefs.

Bob Hermann, a seventh grade student at Cal Middle School, said she was disappointed in the decision to cancel the event and the little time that the school gave them to prepare when the event was put back on the calendar.

“I was excited about the event,” she said. “My project was for my woodworking elective.”

Hermann said she still plans to make her decoration – a large spider stabbed by a sword, a nod to “The Sword in the Stone.”

Wiest said he looks forward to working with school officials to plan a winter-themed event for students.

“We will try to create something fun for the kids, and celebrate the kids,” he said. “We can create some sort of distraction and excitement for the kids, because they are not getting so much interaction.”

Other districts have policies to promote inclusion surrounding holiday events.

In 2019, an elementary school in Antelope’s Center Unified canceled its Halloween parade and all classroom parties, citing low school attendance. The year before, the parents of about 100 students chose to withhold their children from Halloween day events at the school, the district said.

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Sawsan Morrar covers school accountability and culture for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in Sacramento and is an alumna of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She previously freelanced for various publications including The Washington Post, Vice, KQED and Capital Public Radio.

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