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Howard County community divided on changes to school start, dismissal times

Howard County community divided on changes to school start, dismissal times

A crowd of teachers, parents and students remained divided Tuesday evening in discussing a potential change to public school start and dismissal times during a Howard County Board of Education public hearing.

The school system's discussion of start and dismissal time changes surfaced in 2013, as the Start and Dismissal Time Committee analyzed sleep schedules of children and teens; time changes in other Maryland jurisdictions; and impacts on before- and after-school events and child care.

Last month, the Board of Education announced that any change to school times would not occur until the 2018-2019 school year, but that the board will make a decision at the end of February. The committee has shared its four model proposals with the board, which propose sending elementary school students to school earlier in the day while middle and high school students would have later starting times.

About 18 people testified at the public hearing on Feb. 7.

Ben Cohen, a Howard County high school freshman, said a later start time for high schools students would only result in "further procrastination." Beginning his school day early in the morning isn't easy, Cohen said, but teaches students how to be responsible adults.

"I know that the school starting time at 7:25 a.m. is hard, but I try to own up to it," Cohen said. "Most students and parents complain about the early start time because they have bad habits. I see students tired in class, but they complain that they had a long list of extracurricular activities [the previous] night."

Cohen said his peers often choose to go to bed late either because they procrastinated on long-term assignments or overschedule after-school activities.

"The early start time will prepare me for the working world," he said.

Kristen McManus, a mother of two attending Waterloo Elementary School, said the new models would have "a devastating affect on thousands of families' lives," particularly for parents who work into the early evening. If elementary students began boarding the school bus around 7 a.m., McManus said, working parents might not be able to pick up their children until after 6 p.m.

"Because parents need to work later, elementary-age children will actually be at school longer," said McManus, a Howard County high school teacher. "In-school daycare is in high demand and at full capacity. … High school students cannot watch these children, so who will and at what cost?"

However, another parent said that school systems tend to ignore research and data on adolescent sleep patterns, which reveal the benefits of having more sleep. A mother of two students in Howard schools, Heather Fox, of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said many parents who oppose any time changes often do so out of personal preference rather than informed decision-making.

"I believe that the biological changes that occur in early adolescents that affect teens' sleep patterns are important enough that a change in start and dismissal times is needed," Fox said.

At the conclusion of the hearing, chairwoman Cindy Vaillancourt said the board will consider the community's testimony in their final decision, which will not see elementary schools starting at 7:30 a.m.

"It's just absurd," Vaillancourt said. "I don't think there's anybody who does not agree. None of the kids should be going to school at 7:30."

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