By Vikki Ortiz Healy, Chicago Tribune reporter
February 11, 2013
The rules for 7-year-old Riley Krieger's Valentine's Day party recently arrived from school: Bring one valentine addressed to each child on the list attached. Make a heart-covered shoe box on your own time or just bring a bag. Any treats for the class must be individually wrapped and, as always, peanut-free.
"I just laughed, and so did my daughter," said Lara Krieger, of Chicago, who remembers a simpler time when her mother baked cookies for the holiday, and she and her classmates decorated shoe boxes at their desks.
"Everything wasn't so regulated," Krieger said. "Things were more easygoing."
In an age of allergies, anti-bullying efforts and concerns about test scores and childhood obesity, Valentine's Day has become much more complicated, school officials and parents say.
At many parties across the Chicago area, heart-shaped candies and chocolate kisses will be replaced with fruit slices and yogurt cups. Principals have implemented a wide range of guidelines on how students may hand out valentines, so as not to leave anyone out.
And several schools have scaled back or done away with the Feb. 14 celebration in favor of more meaningful use of learning time.
At Edison Elementary School in Elmhurst, the PTA eliminated Valentine's Day festivities three years ago and now sponsors "Edison Week," five days of activities, contests and games.
"We started looking at Valentine's Day as, I don't want to say a worthless party, but there was so much emphasis put on 'instructional minutes' that we wondered if we could really burn up 60 minutes having a party over nothing," said Karen Stezowski, secretary of Edison's PTA and mother of three.
Some parents may chuckle recalling hours spent flipping through an assortment of cards, agonizing over what message to send to each classmate. But such decisions are no longer necessary at Stock Elementary School in Chicago, where students leave valentine envelopes blank.
The practice spares the school's 300 kindergarten students from what could be a daunting task, as many are just learning to write their own names. It also makes distribution faster and ensures that no child is left out, said Ann McNally, Stock's principal.
And while students will attend short parties in their classrooms, they will also participate in a two-week unit in which teachers address Valentine's Day in more abstract ways. These range from handing out toy stethoscopes to hear each other's heartbeats to leading discussions on friendship and love.
"It's a much bigger concept than giving chocolate to somebody," McNally said. "We're very mindful of what we're teaching."
The origins of Valentine's Day and whether it traces back to a martyred Catholic saint are murky, but it remains one of the biggest commercial holidays.
Last year, 224 million roses were produced for the occasion, according to the Society of American Florists. And the Greeting Card Association expects 145 million Valentine's Day cards to be purchased in the U.S. this year.
While the traditional holiday industry remains robust, the many interpretations of Valentine's Day exhibited in schools are rooted in changes that have slowly evolved in recent decades, say those who monitor educational trends.
The wave of immigration into the U.S. in the 1960s led to a new emphasis in multiculturalism in teacher training. By the 1980s, teachers brought concepts such as cultural sensitivity and respect for differences to their classrooms, and textbook publishers rethought some content to better reflect all students, said William J. Reese, professor of educational policy studies and history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
By 2000, changes in education policy that linked teacher pay to performance and made closing the achievement gap a priority led to more scrutiny on how class time was used, said Laura Lippman, program director for education at Child Trends, a nonprofit research group.
Those factors — combined with a dramatic increase in peanut allergies, childhood obesity and gluten sensitivity — made it inevitable that Cupid's parties would be curtailed, educators said.
At Barnsdale Road School in La Grange, PTO member Mary Drew began sending out reminders of Valentine's Day guidelines in late January.
Parents are asked to not bring any treats or goody bags, but to instead allow the PTO to handle them, said Drew, who will personally deliver 200 cupcakes from a peanut-free bakery on Valentine's Day, on Thursday this year.
"School should be an inclusive and safe place; families can decide to do something else special on their own," said Drew. "Things change, and that's OK."
In Chicago, Krieger said that while she notices the changes, she understands their necessity, given the risks for some families.
"There are two children in my daughter's class, they would die if they had peanuts," she said. "I completely see those parents' point of view."
And at Hatch Elementary School in Oak Park, Principal Sheila Carter has instructed teachers to keep plastic bags handy to wrap up goodies brought in by parents who missed the no-treat memo.
She'll also keep several boxes of unopened cards in her office for children who show up without any to distribute.
"Everybody wants to belong, and when they're passing out cards, and you don't have any to pass out … why put them through that," Carter said.
On a recent afternoon, Jennifer Sammon, of Western Springs, did her best to keep the rules from all three of her children's schools in mind as she perused the valentine card selection at a Target store.
She considered a bag of candy but settled on a box of Barbie valentines, which came with press-on tattoos. Those, she said, were definitely not on the school's banned list and would be a hit in her daughter's preschool class.
"I think it's lost on them that things are different," Sammon said. "I don't think the kids feel like they're missing out."
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