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Howard County Board of Education votes not to keep later start times of school days

The county Board of Education rescinded a motion Dec. 19 that was passed in February that called for later starting times at county schools beginning in 2018.

The board retained the current start and dismissal times for next year. Board member Kirsten Coombs said on Facebook any changes to start and dismissal times are “dead,” but programmatic changes are possible. Coombs could not be reached for comment.

Chairwoman Cindy Vaillancourt cast the only vote among board members against retaining the current start time model. She could not be reached for comment.

Several parents said they were “appalled” and “disappointed” with the board’s decision.

Noreen Naroo Pucci, an Elkridge resident, said she believed the board did not “think it through.”

“I think they made a complete mockery of the word, ‘vote,’ ” Pucci said about the board’s decision to rescind its February ruling. “I’m not naive that this would cost us money in the budget, but where can we get creative? There wasn’t even that kind of approach.”

Scientific studies, such as those presented by the start time committee, show detriments of sleep deprivation on teenagers, she said.

“No child should be outside at 6:35 a.m. They’re not absorbing anything at 7:25 in the morning,” Pucci said. “We are not preparing these children to work and be competitive in a global environment.”

The Start and Dismissal Time Committee presented the board with four alternatives to the current times after a four-year study. Elementary schools currently start between 8:35 and 9:25 a.m. and dismiss between 3:05 and 3:55 p.m. Middle schools start between 7:40 and 8:25 a.m. and dismiss between 2:40 and 3:10 p.m., while all high schools start at 7:25 a.m. and dismiss at 2:10 p.m.

The board voted in February to have all schools begin after 8 a.m. but before 9:25 a.m. – a decision that board member Sandra French and former board member Christine O’Connor disagreed with due to issues like before- and after-school activities and transportation problems. The decision would have had dismissal times beginning at 2:45 p.m.

The budget, implementation, community feedback and effects on students and before- and after-school activities were factors in the board’s ruling, officials said. The committee’s report showed that each model required more school buses and increasing the school system’s budget by $6 to $9 million per year.

“I realize many are disappointed in the start times decision,” Coombs wrote on her Facebook page. “What I’d like to do is have some innovation on doing some staggering with some programmatic opportunities, which we have directed Dr. Martirano to explore. … I wanted my daughter to go to [high school] later next year, but I can’t think of where I’m advocating for $6 million to be cut.”

Ellicott City resident Kelly Balchunas said the board had “a tough decision” to make and that it probably made the right decision to not change start times for 2018. However, she said, the discussion should be ongoing.

“I would have preferred to see the board set a realistic date for making this happen in the future and earmarking funds, beginning now, to make sure it actually occurs,” Balchunas said. “Healthy sleep habits are important adolescent concerns and should not be overlooked.”

Balchunas said she gave the board the benefit of the doubt since other issues came to light in the past year, including redistricting and fast-tracking High School 13.

“I am disappointed that this important issue appears dead for the foreseeable future,” she said. “There are pressing budget concerns right now that cannot be ignored, but budget concerns are always going to be a reason to not move forward on some initiatives.”

The School Board also approved a 2018-19 academic calendar Dec. 19 that gives students “a more traditional Howard County spring break,” but has students in class on the Presidents Day holiday in February.

A mandate under Gov. Larry Hogan requires Maryland public schools to start after Labor Day and end by June 15, which Howard County will continue following next year.

In 2019, spring break for Howard County public schools will be April 15 through 22, but students will attend school April 15, 16 and 17 if the school system needs to make up days for inclement weather.

School officials said opening on Presidents Day brings flexibility to the school calendar. Superintendent Michael Martirano will request a waiver from the state Board of Education to allow students to attend school on the state-mandated holiday Feb. 18.

Staff will report to school on Wednesday, Aug. 22; first day for students is Tuesday, Sept. 4. Schools will close for winter break Dec. 24 through Jan. 1, 2019 and re-open on Jan. 2. The last day for students is June 14 and last day for school staff is June 17.

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