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Howard County Times
Howard County

Howard school board still mired in debate over best time to start school day

Howard County Public School System officials continued talking this week about what delaying school start times would look like for students and families.

The county school board’s aim is to delay start times for high schoolers, moving from the current 7:25 a.m. start to as late as 8:30 a.m., beginning with the 2023-2024 school year. Any changes to the high school schedule create a “domino effect” at all levels, affecting start times and bus routes and involving “a lot of moving parts,” according to Tom Platt of Decision Support Group, Inc., a consulting firm that is working with HCPSS to determine a path forward.

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Analysis so far has focused on splitting schools into three tiers of start times. Tier 1 schools (high schools) would start the earliest, as early as 8 a.m. or as late as 8:30 a.m. Tier 3 schools (mostly elementary schools and some middle schools) would have the latest start times, starting at 9:15 or possibly as late as 9:45 a.m.

Currently, elementary school start times range from as early as 8:40 a.m. to as late as 9:25 a.m. Middle schools start as early as 7:40 a.m. or as late as 8:25 a.m. All high schools begin classes at 7:25 a.m.

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During a meeting Thursday, school board member Antonia Watts proposed changing the whole paradigm, swapping proposed start times and making the high school tier the one that started latest.

This possible change of plan would be significant, Platt advised, and would likely push the timeline for implementing later start times past the 2023-2024 school year.

“Doing this would seriously jeopardize being able to implement this in 2023-24,” Platt said.

The school board ultimately voted 7-1 to direct the superintendent and staff to determine a timeline for how long it would take to do an analysis on whether Watts’ idea is feasible.

”I want to make sure we have everything at our disposal that we could before we make this big change for our families,” Watts said.

The staff will present its timeline for the analysis to the board on Aug. 16.

Board member Chao Wu voted against the motion, saying that while he supports starting high school later, he believes 8 a.m. or 8:10 a.m. is reasonable.

“9:15 a.m. is too late for high school and 8 a.m. is too early for elementary school,” Wu said. “This will create two new problems while addressing one old problem.”

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The school board voted in February to begin studying how to adjust school start times later for the 2023-24 school year. This was prompted by the Howard County Chapter of Start School Later, a national nonprofit organization made up of educators, health professionals, parents, sleep scientists and other concerned citizens dedicated to promoting healthy school start times.

Not getting enough sleep is common among high school students and is associated with several health risks including drinking alcohol, using drugs, being overweight and smoking tobacco, as well as poor academic performance, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

During discussion at Thursday’s meeting, Platt and Brian Nevin, director of the Student Transportation Office, explained to the board how each decision they make about start times can affect many others. For instance, Platt explained, moving Tier 1 schools to 8:30 a.m. means Tier 3 schools would start as late as 9:45 a.m.

School board members Yun Lu and Chao Wu expressed concerns about starting schools so late, particularly elementary schools, whose students would need adult supervision. They both said many Howard County parents work outside the home and getting their kids to school at 9:45 would be a burden, especially for those who live in the western part of the county.

Watts noted that some families did have the experience of starting school at 9:45 a.m. during the pandemic, but agreed it would be difficult to do at the elementary level.

“I do think it’s a hard sell,” she said. “I can’t imagine voting for a 9:45 start time for elementary school.”

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That’s when she asked Platt and Nevin whether starting high schools later made more sense.

“It’s absolutely something that was discussed early in [the] process. Our desire was to be as conservative as possible in the analytical phases,” Platt said. “The sense that we had was that there was not strong support for flipping of the high school and elementary tier.”

Watts said, the school board’s goal has been “to make high school start as late as we could,” and therefore she advocated for looking at moving the high school tier to the latest start times.

Regardless of the final start time plan, school board member Jolene Mosley said she wanted to assure the community that there would be no changes to the length of the school day. And school board chair Vicky Cutroneo said parents, students and community members would be given a chance to weigh in on changes.

“We just want to assure the public there will be plenty of opportunity for feedback,” Cutroneo said.

As of now, the final school start times are scheduled to be presented to the board in December, with bus routes finalized in spring 2023.

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School board member Christina Delmont-Small acknowledged all of the work that has gone into the analysis thus far and said the goal is to fix an inefficient system.

“There isn’t going to be a 100% perfect solution to this. Not everyone is going to be happy with us ...” she said. “But I believe we are headed in a good direction because there is data saying that we should be changing start times for our students ... and we do want an efficient system.”

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