A day into Charlottesville High School's “reset,” when the superintendent canceled classes to give teachers and staff time to reassess how to handle increasing student fights and misconduct, Andy Josselyn was weary of talking about how bad things had gotten.

That Monday, Nov. 20, the staff was focused on safety. And that was important, the Charlottesville High School teacher said.

“But also, when you talk about a reset, what does it mean to reset?” he said. “It means to begin anew. So I just started grabbing people out of the hallway and being like, ‘What would you do if you could do something fun?'”

More about Charlottesville High School

Very quickly, an idea coalesced. The teachers could use the high school's weekly study hall time, which happens every Wednesday afternoon, to host activities with the sole purpose of having fun.

The point was not to ignore the real problems facing Charlottesville High School — and many other schools around the country — but rather to help address them in another way.

High school students have faced incredible stress since schools closed for around a year during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Children spent the 2020-2021 school year learning online in home environments, not a great situation for many. They then came back to schools with strict rules about distancing, mask wearing, and teachers who were responsible for monitoring illnesses, contact tracing and trying to stay healthy themselves.

There was no emphasis on fun, teachers said.

“My freshman year was almost entirely online,” said Nava Khurgel. “Coming back after COVID was an adjustment. I didn't know anybody, really. And we were still wearing masks all the time. I think it meant that we branched out less, because it's honestly harder to speak to people when you're wearing a mask. It is harder to hear people and then it's just awkward.”

Khurgel is now a senior, and like others in her class, she missed years of high school dances, sporting events and pep rallies.

Teachers are still discovering the effect this had. In fact, Josselyn recalls last year a group of his junior students asking him what a pep rally was.

“They were like, ‘How does it work? What do you do at a pep rally?'” Josselyn said. He was baffled by the question. “I had to sit and explain to them, we're gonna go to the gym, and we're going to — you know — have pep! They had no idea.”

While it's an amusing anecdote, it's also a sign that the high school experience these students had was one of stress and strict rules without the traditional breaks for fun or camaraderie. Josselyn said he doesn't know if that has contributed to the rise in fights and misbehavior among high school students this year. But it certainly isn't helping.

“The pandemic made you realize how much of the culture of a high school is passed down from grade to grade to grade, from one class to the next,” he said. “And then when that pass down doesn't happen, you literally have to rebuild it.”

So, by the second day of the reset, Tuesday, Nov. 21, CHS teachers were forming a plan. They would transform the following week's Black Knight Time into a day of fun.

The physical education teacher volunteered to host a mini-basketball tournament (which turned out to be a big hit), the drama teacher said he could host an open mic. A teacher suggested some kind of art project, another said they should host a salon.

Two teens sit in chairs getting their hair cut by two men in a room full of people.
Barbers from the 100 Haircuts Initiative, which offers free haircuts to area youth, held a makeshift barber shop at the Black Knight Time event, Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. Jessie Higgins/Collectbritain

Josselyn typed up some notes and was about to bring it to a larger group to be finalized.

“And then the bomb threat happened,” he said. “And then we had to evacuate into the rain.”

Police found no bomb, and acknowledged that they ordered the evacuation out of an abundance of caution. The threat came from fairly vague messages and pictures posted to a SnapChat group, they said. (Subscribers to the Daily Progress can read more about it here.)

But the evacuation stole precious planning time from the teachers, who then went on Thanksgiving break until the following Monday. Still, they pulled it off with the help of the Charlottesville High School Parent Teacher Organization, which provided funding and volunteers. On Wednesday, Dec. 13, instead of quiet study, students gathered for activities.

The pandemic made you realize how much of the culture of a high school is passed down from grade to grade to grade, from one class to the next. And then when that pass down doesn't happen, you literally have to rebuild it.

—Andy Josselyn, teacher at Charlottesville High School

Ultimately, students chose between the basketball tournament, open mic, watching movies, getting henna designs painted on their skin, making decorative cards and cookies, or getting a haircut.

The #100CutsInitiative initiative showed up with barbers to provide free cuts. The service was so popular, teachers had to stop students from abandoning their chosen activities en masse for their own cuts when pictures of the makeshift salon started going up on social media, Josselyn said.

In the days before the Wednesday event, there was a buzz among the students, Khurgel said. The students had to decide beforehand which activity they wanted to join. Khurgel went with a few of her friends to watch the basketball tournament.

“Kids were definitely very excited, especially the ones who were going to play,” she said.

It set a good mood, she said.

“I think coming back from Thanksgiving, it's definitely been a nice environment,” she said. “I feel like there are more smiles.”

Teens play basketball on an indoor court. Several are jumping for the ball near the hoop.
City Schools held a small basketball tournament as part of the Black Knight Time on Dec. 13, 2023. Photo courtesy of Charlottesville City Schools

The afternoon was so successful that Josselyn has loose plans to do it again. Nothing concrete, he said, because organizing such a major event requires lots of help, planning and a little good fortune.

But whether it comes in the form of a study hall extravaganza or something else, Josselyn said he and other teachers are committed to making the high school a place where positive and fun things happen for students.

“There has to be moments of joy and positive fun,” Josselyn said. “We're going to get back to the heart of what it means to be a Black Knight at Charlottesville High School, which is to go to a school where there's a ton of awesome things happening all the time.”

I'm Collectbritain's managing editor and health and safety reporter. If there’s something you think we should be investigating, please email me at [email protected]! And you can follow all the work we do by subscribing to our free newsletter! Hablo español, y quiero mantener a la comunidad hispanohablante informada. Si tienes preguntas o información que debo saber, por favor, envíame un correo electrónico a [email protected].