School bell times pushed back for next school year

By Jasmine Baten and Pablo Roa

After over two years of proposals, hearings, petitions and town hall meetings, the Montgomery County Board of Education (BOE) has decided to push high school start times back by 20 minutes starting next school year.

The Board made its decision after reviewing several bell time options and reaching out to members of the MCPS community over the last few months.

“Any change to our starting and ending times will have an impact on every student, parent and employee in Montgomery County Public Schools,” BOE President Patricia O’Neill said in a Jan. 6 press statement. “It is important that our citizens understand the options we are considering and let their voices be heard.”

In an effort to keep the MCPS community involved in the decision making process, the Board held a public hearing Jan. 22 where MCPS parents, teachers and officials came together to present arguments and options regarding school start times.

At the hearing, Montgomery County Director of Transportation Todd Watkins introduced three possible plans for MCPS bell time changes. The plans were amended from former Superintendent Joshua Starr’s initial proposal from last year that turned out to be impractical because of its staggering cost.

One of the proposals consisted of multiple subplans, where schoolday lengths would have been  altered. In this model, elementary schools would have opened first between 7:35 and 8:25 a.m., which would have pushed dismissal to between 1:50 and 2:40 p.m. Middle schools would have opened last between 9:15 and 9:40 a.m., with a release time between 4 and 4:35 p.m. High schools would have started the day between 8:45 and 9:10 a.m., letting out between 3:30 and 3:55 p.m.

Prior to the Board’s decision, Principal Joan Benz said Feb. 3 that this was the best option for the county as it would have allowed students to get the amount of sleep they need to do well in school.

“I think that it should be at least 35 minutes to an hour,” Benz said. “Research supports the idea  that students stay up later and wake up later than adults. If they’re going to make a change, I would like to see at least 35 minutes, but an hour would be better.”

Another option provided a compromise, splitting the start times of high school. One group of high school students would start and end at the current time, and transportation would be provided by the county. The second group of students would have started school at 9:05, when Period 3 usually begins, and finished at 3:50. Those students would have had to use their own transportation to school.

Ultimately, the Board approved a cost-free option originally proposed by Starr. Given concerns about budget deficits at the state and county levels, the former Superintendent recommended Jan. 13 that school start times be pushed back by 20 minutes since such a change would come at no additional cost for the county.

“I have said all along that I would like high school to start later in the day in order to support the health and well-being of our students,” Starr said in the statement. “But we must balance this decision against the other needs and priorities we have in the district and ensure any changes to high school bell times do not place an unfair burden on other students and their families. At this point, given the projected budget shortfalls, I believe the only options that should be considered are those that do not add any additional cost to the budget.”

While pushing back start times by 20 minutes is the cheapest option for the county, many believe that such a small change will not make a difference.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that middle and high school students start school no earlier than 8:30 a.m. because teenagers have sleep rhythms that make it harder for them to go to sleep and wake up as early as younger children and adults. A change of 20 minutes pushes high school start times to 7:45 a.m., which still falls well below the AAP’s recommendation.

Michael Rubenstein, publicity coordinator for Start School Later Montgomery County (SSL), testified at the hearing that the 20-minute option is not only impractical, but also useless for helping high school students get more sleep.

“[Pushing start times by] 20 minutes would be laughable if it wasn’t infuriating,” Rubenstein said. “We didn’t work for two years to get a lousy 20 minutes.”

Junior Dorothy Hu believes that the 20 minute change allows for students to have a less stressful and more efficient lifestyle.

“School start times should change because a lot of students do their homework later as a result of afterschool activities and extracurriculars,” Hu said. “A later start time would let them get more rest and be more alert throughout the day.”

Although a longer delay in start times would have allowed high schoolers to get additional rest, it would have meant quite the opposite for teachers who do not live close to the school system.

According to the Montgomery County Education Association’s recent survey of 12,000 staff members, 54 percent of teachers overwhelmingly oppose the 20-minute change in bell times, as they believe it will not improve academic achievement or public health.

Sherwood teacher Allison Erdman said at the hearing that a drastic change in bell schedules would force her and many other MCPS teachers to find new jobs because the new schedule would not coincide with that of their home county. Teachers would not only have to deal with a slower commute by driving to school later in the day, but those who have obligations at home would also have to adjust their lives to the new schedule.

Honors Anatomy teacher James Fishman introduces problems teachers with younger children face.

“This would make my morning child care issues a little easier, but my commute would be substantially longer, and it would make the afternoons harder for me,” Fishman said. “I would then need after-school care and I would be getting out of school very late in the afternoon.”

All of the options involved some delay in the beginning of high school start times, a change that seems to be the most essential to parents. Prior to the Board’s decision, many parents had expressed anger at the fact that the county was unwilling to spend money on starting school later when it was spending a ton of money elsewhere.

“It’s all about priorities,” MCPS parent Kristin Cook said at the hearing. “Do we value our children’s physical and mental health, or is buying a Google Chromebook more important? When you know better, you’re supposed to do better. Please do better.”

While it only took the Board a couple of months to decide on a proposal, the process to change bell times has been ongoing for years.

The Board began debating this issue back in 1997, but eventually decided not to change anything due to expenses and convenience. Since then, numerous school systems across the country have altered their bell schedules. The most recent change has been the $4.9 million effort to push high school start times between 8 and 8:10 a.m. in Fairfax County.

With their decision to push back school start times, the Board ends an 18-year effort to change bell times in MCPS. While the change may not satisfy all MCPS community members, many believe it is a big step for a school system that refused to change for nearly two decades.

“Although 20 minutes may not be ideal for extending sleep time for all high school students, it is a move in the right direction,” O’Neill said in a Feb. 10 press statement. “We want to thank the community for sharing their thoughts and concerns with us and for being very engaged throughout this process.”