City schools to shave an hour from their days starting Oct. 4; TikTok-inspired vandalism hits school bathrooms

Though masked and socially distant, more teachers and students have been interacting the way they used to once students have returned to schools. (File photo by Randi B. Hagi)

By Bridget Manley, publisher

Harrisonburg City Schools will shorten the school instructional day for all students by one hour beginning Oct. 4 to help relieve city teachers who are stressed under the weight of exhausting work hours and a lack of proper planning periods.  

The Harrisonburg School Board unanimously approved the change Tuesday night after hearing from teachers who said they are working through the days without lunch breaks or proper planning periods, and they are working additional hours on nights, weekends and holidays to properly educate children.

Some teachers said they don’t have time to even use the bathroom.

“There are perfectly wonderful teachers who are resigning because they cannot go to the bathroom during the day,” said Kathleen Holter, a teacher and past president of the Harrisonburg Education Association said. “When a teacher is told they have to eat lunch with their children, and their planning time is taken up with a meeting, they have no break whatsoever.”

“Please, please let our teachers use the bathroom,” she added.

The move to shorten the school day will last for a 48-day period, and the school board will reconsider it again in November to see if it helped teachers and whether it should be extended.

Patrick Lintner, the school divisions’ chief academic officer, said school officials considered lopping off time at the beginning of the day or the end of the day but ultimately decided that the best option for families would be to release students early so they could continue the morning routines and get to work and school as normal. 

The shortened school day plan won’t affect the state’s requirements for school systems to be in school for 990 hours. Under the shortened day plan, the school division will still provide 1,102 instruction hours to elementary schools, 1,132 hours to middle schools and 1,097 hours to high schools. Lintner said it gives the school system some wiggle room in case of emergencies that might come up.

Preschool schedules will not be affected by the shortened school day, as their day is already short, Lintner said.

The plan to shorten the school day for students is one of several strategies the school board will employ to help lift the stress on teachers. 

The board also plans to limit field trips that involve the transportation department and reduce the number of meetings where teachers must leave their buildings to attend. 

By starting the new shorter days on Oct. 4, parents and teachers have nearly two weeks to find alternate care for the extra hour.

However, Lintner said school officials have already spoken to their after-school partners —programs like Boys and Girls Club, Gus Bus and others — and those programs will begin their afterschool hours earlier.  For high school students who participate in afterschool activities, the high school will offer a study hour. Other activities will also be moved up to accommodate the change. 

Teachers in the audience applauded the plan, and many spoke directly to the board about the long hours, weekend, holiday and nights that they spend planning and grading instead of being with their families, in addition to the overwhelming stress they felt.

“We love our job, please make it sustainable,” said Jennifer Dayton, a kindergarten teacher at Waterman Elementary. 

Annette Fornadel, a kindergarten teacher and parent of three students, told the board that “this September feels like March.”

“We came back after being creative and dynamic, and all these wonderful things, and we changed how we did our job last year completely, and we came back to the same old things,” Fornadel said. “We went right back to where we were. We came right back to the same inflexible schedule.” 

Lintner also said the city schools also face shortages of substitute teachers and bus drivers. There are not enough substitutes to cover the teaching shortages when teachers test positive for COVID or have to go into isolation, he said.

The substitute teacher situation is so dire, teachers are being called to attend to other classes during their planning periods to help with classes, and the division’s central office employees with previous teaching have been dispatched to schools to help fill in the gaps, as well.

Vandalism in middle and high schools because of TikTok challenge 

Harrisonburg School Superintendent Michael G. Richards told The Citizen that a viral TikTok challenge called “Devious Licks” has hit Harrisonburg High School and Thomas Harrison Middle School, with both reporting cases of vandalism in bathrooms.

The trend “challenges” students to steal or deface school property. The TikTok videos have been taken down, but that didn’t stop some students from still vandalizing bathrooms.

“We found some evidence of vandalism in the high school, rather minor, and also at Thomas Harrison Middle school,” Richards said. “We have been victims of this “Devious Lick,” and I’m grateful that TikTok took it down.”

Schools across the country have seen vandalism and theft — including removal of entire bathroom stalls. 

Richards said in Harrisonburg’s schools, the theft was minor.

“A soap dispenser, a toilet seat, I’m pretty sure,” Richards said. 

Lockers remain off-limits because of COVID, so students bring backpacks into the bathrooms, which Richards suspects it’s making it easier for students to steal items like soap dispensers. 

If students get caught, they will be disciplined, Richards said. 

“We ask our students to just be good school citizens and not do it,” Richards said. 

Richards says that they are educating students about “what a knucklehead activity it is.”

“You can’t wash your hands, you can’t use the toilet. I mean, come on, it’s self-destructive,” Richards said. “Our kids are pretty smart. I think they will figure it out that it’s something they don’t want to do.” 

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