“May I use the restroom?”
“Can I go to the bathroom?”
“ ¿Puedo ir al baño?”
“Puis-je utiliser la salle de bain?”
As students, asking permission to use the restroom, get a drink of water, or visit the school nurse has become a natural part of the school day. At Oyster River High School, students have long held the freedom to leave class with their teacher’s discretion, walking the halls without a hall pass or permission slip. However, with questions arising regarding student safety and accountability, especially in cases of emergency, the school is faced with answering the question: how much freedom is too much?
According to Heather Machanoff, the ORCSD Director of Counseling, “there’s no written policy [regarding students’ ability to leave the classroom], but there’s procedure within the building.” Beginning in early February, teachers and faculty have begun to implement a system which requires students to sign out when they leave the classroom. Additionally, students are expected to use passes when moving to and from the counseling office, health office, or main office. Although some students have expressed irritation with the change, Machonoff clarified that “the system that has been put into place hasn’t been made to limit visits, but instead to track traveling to and from those places.”
Sign-out sheets keep record of the date and time a student spent outside of the classroom and the reason for their departure. “The ability for us to hold students accountable and make sure we’re doing what we need to do as educators is hard to do without some kind of system,” explained Machanoff. “Systems can cause angst, but they can also streamline things to make them manageable.”
Kim Wolph, the school nurse at Oyster River High School, further explained the importance of signing out, saying, “all of the faculty and staff here are accountable for the students’ whereabouts during the school day. It is our duty to hold students accountable as to where they are supposed to be.”
Mike McCann, assistant principal at Oyster River High School, is a member of the Multi-Tiered Support Services (MTSS) leadership team, a team dedicated to improving student learning and tracking student growth, which contributed to the new policy. He weighed in on the issues, saying, “one of the reasons why we moved in this direction has to do with student accountability. There are liability issues around knowing where students are, but a bigger part of it has to do with our MTSS team. We talked a lot about how to help students take more ownership over when they’re leaving a classroom and being more aware of the time.”
McCann also stressed the idea of creating a clear expectation to avoid confusion or frustration. “We’re trying to make it more uniform across the school. When rules and guidelines are consistent throughout the school, it’s easier for them to function because they know what to expect. It’s difficult when there are different rules in every single classroom you go to,” said McCann.
This new policy has set the stage for larger scale conversation on this issue. Although sign-out sheets address the issue of student accountability and whereabouts, the ability for students to be permitted to leave in the first place remains unclear. “It really depends on the teacher,” explained Katherine Discoe (‘22), referring to students’ ability to leave class.
Madeline Marshall (‘22) agreed, further explaining the differences between teacher’s viewpoints and experiences. “Some of my teachers are used to dealing with seniors who leave for like thirty minutes at a time and they get mad and don’t let me leave because they think I’m going to do the same thing, but that’s not the case.”
In addition to issues of accountability of students for long periods of time, the growing popularity of vaping has also changed the way some faculty view the bathroom. According to “This High School Is Locking Down Most of Its Bathrooms to Stop Students from Vaping” by Vice News, some high schools have begun to take drastic measures against vaping, which sometimes occurs in school bathrooms. “Not only is it a safety and health concern for those vaping, but it is also a safety concern for the rest of the students. Other students are reporting that they are scared to go to the washrooms because of the students who are frequently vaping there,” said Deneka Michaud, a school board spokeswoman from a North Vancouver high school, in an email to Vice News.
ORHS student Clara* saw parallels between the nationwide issue and Oyster River, saying, “juuling is definitely an issue in bathrooms at Oyster River.” Clara described how using the bathroom can often be uncomfortable when some students use the space to vape. “Once, I was trying to change and I walked into a bathroom and two girls were in a stall together juuling and talking, so I left right away,” she explained.
Despite concerns of vaping, some students believe that briefly leaving class is important for students’ learning. “When you realize you’re getting bored or dissociated from a class and you can’t pay attention, having a chance to get out, take a break, and reset your brain is important,” said Demetrius Phofolos (‘19). “Regardless what you’re doing – using the bathroom, getting a drink, or just taking a minute – we should be able to have that opportunity to leave if [something is] getting in the way of our learning,” he continued.
Kara Sullivan, English teacher at ORHS, agreed that giving students the opportunity to briefly leave is important, saying, “I absolutely think that ‘taking a break’ is essential. However, it is all about timing. Most students are great about timing. They often ask, ‘is this a good time to go to the bathroom or get a drink?’ This is never a problem,” said Sullivan. “Honestly, it is more about students who ask to go to the bathroom and then leave class for ten minutes. I can’t leave class to figure out where they are going, and sometimes they are hanging out in the core,” she added.
Sullivan also brought up the issue of students missing material when they are leaving class for extended periods of time. “Students will sometimes come to class and sit until class starts and then ask to go to the bathroom just as I get the class started. I find myself repeating information to individuals,” she said. Sullivan explained that the current issues that arise from students’ time away from class could be improved by the new use of sign-out sheets. “I think the passes will help to keep students focused on what the break is for. A quick break and then back to class to focus,” she said.
Phofolos agreed, adding that sign-out sheets could also ensure that every student has the opportunity to take a break. Phofolos explained how in the past he has noticed differences in which students are permitted to leave the classroom, saying, “I feel like some students get targeted more for leaving to use the bathroom based on if they are doing well in the class or their reputation as a kid,” explained Phofolos. “I don’t think that’s fair because I think everybody deserves at least a little bit of time during class to take a break and unwind.”
Madeleine Triff (‘20), agreed that all students should have access to the same resources, but is skeptical of the impact sign-out sheets will have on this issue. “Personally, I think it’s unfair that because a few people did something wrong that everyone has to be punished for it. However, it’s not a major inconvenience – it’s just writing your time down when you leave and get back,” she said. Despite Triff not having much personal issue with the policy, she expressed doubt that the system would change much. “Some students still don’t sign out and just leave and some teachers just don’t care,” said Triff. “I think it’s important for classes to keep track of attendance and I get why it’s necessary, but I’m not sure it’s solving the issue in all classes,” she added.
Although the sign-out sheets and passes remain a new aspect of Oyster River’s expectations, a student’s ability to request to leave class has been consistently relevant. Since some students have conditions that require them to take time away from class, Wolph, the school nurse, explained the importance of permission to leave. “My personal opinion is that if someone asks to use the restroom, that [request] should be honored,” she said. “However, if a teacher notices that every period at a certain time, a student asks to use the bathroom, and they have some concern about it, the teacher would hopefully reach out to either myself or to the student’s parent to figure out if this is justified or if it is an avoidance of class during that time frame.”
Wolph also stressed the importance of communication between students, teachers, and faculty. “Coming from a medical perspective, I know what diagnoses students have. So [a request to leave] could be completely warranted,” she added.
McCann added that sign-out sheets and passes are beneficial in helping bridge communication between students and faculty. “They allow [teachers] to feel more comfortable letting a student leave because they know where they are going.” Additionally, keeping track of where students are during certain time periods can help them to stay on top of their workload in the future. “If you’re gone during an important part of instruction, even though it could be perfectly legitimate, you may need to make up that time during Flex,” he said, adding that sign-out sheets can be an important part of identifying when a student may need to make up work or pursue extra help.
Finally, Wolph added that any changes to school policy regarding sign-out sheets and passes are made to benefit the students, saying, “this isn’t about denying resources for students. We want everyone to get the service that they need at that time, whether it’s to make it to counseling or the health office or other facilities, regardless of physical diagnosis. It’s about making sure that everyone is as safe as they can be on school premises.”