With less than a month remaining until the Howard County Board of Education decides whether to change school start times beginning next school year, district officials are turning to their eastern neighbor to see how proposed changes could play out.
Anne Arundel County Public Schools is halfway through its first school year with new bell times, having shifted high schools from a 7:30 a.m. start to 8:30 a.m. Anne Arundel’s elementary schools now start at 8 a.m. and middle schools begin at 9:15.
“Change is naturally hard for human beings,” said Anne Arundel schools spokesperson Bob Mosier. “No significant change comes about without issues that need to be addressed, and this one is certainly no different.”
Mosier said the Anne Arundel County school board arrived at the decision to change start times based on widespread scientific research. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that teenagers receive eight to 10 hours of sleep nightly, a threshold more than two-thirds of high schoolers fail to meet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts say sleep deprivation has a variety of negative health impacts, from learning and memory loss to increased risk of diabetes and substance abuse.
While Anne Arundel parents have had to face a variety of individual challenges this school year based on new start times — from finding day care services to balancing work with pickup times — Mosier says the school system has for the most part successfully navigated the shift.
“People have adjusted,” he said. “We’re not getting a huge amount of correspondence or phone calls here in the communications office about start times themselves.”
Zachary McGrath, a Severna Park High School senior and student member of the Anne Arundel school board, agreed with later start times as a policy but said the switch has had its highs and lows.
“The health and the academic reasons for changing it have been a huge success,” said McGrath, who no longer bemoans having Spanish first period. “But I think some of the logistics around it have been a bit difficult, like for students who have after-school activities.”
The Howard County school board is set to vote Feb. 23 on whether to proceed with one of two final start times proposals or maintain the current schedule.
Howard’s proposals group schools into three tiers. In the first proposal, Tier 1 (all 13 high schools, Cedar Lane School, the Homewood Center and six middle schools) would begin at 8 a.m. Tier 2 (14 middle schools and 14 elementary schools) would start at 8:40. Tier 3 (28 elementary schools) would begin at 9:15. A second proposal would swap tiers 1 and 3, meaning high schools would begin classes the latest, at 9:15 a.m. High schools now start the day at 7:25 a.m. Elementary and middle school start times vary.
“Both proposals of school start times being at either 8 a.m. or 9:15 are better than the status quo,” Howard school board member Jennifer Swickard Mallo said at a Jan. 24 work session. “Point blank, I will be supporting later school start times.”
A nationwide bus driver shortage, fueled by stagnant wages and the COVID-19 pandemic, proved to be the greatest hurdle in implementing new bell times for Anne Arundel, and is another factor Howard schools are weighing carefully.
By condensing the start times window, Anne Arundel reduced the ability for drivers to conduct double runs, during which drivers pick up and drop off students on one route before returning to pick up a second group on an entirely different route. This led to more than 3,100 instances of students missing a day of school due to lack of bus service through the first 21 academic days of the school year, according to data from AACPS.
Anne Arundel still has nearly 50 driver vacancies as of Jan. 19, but the school system has managed to provide coverage to all bus routes thanks to substitute drivers and the approval of a minivan fleet to transport students with special needs.
While the transportation challenges have been daunting, they would have existed regardless of new bell times, Mosier said.
“The change in start times, in and of itself, did not exacerbate our shortage of bus drivers,” he said. “I can’t emphasize that enough.”
Howard board members have echoed concerns about bus route challenges and the Office of Student Transportation is assessing how to make it all work. Howard County had 87 driver vacancies as of Jan. 27, according to schools spokesperson Brian Bassett.
Howard Superintendent Michael Martirano, who has met with Anne Arundel representatives to discuss bell times adjustments, said that Howard has also discussed hiring its own van drivers as a way to plug the gaps and create a pipeline for new bus drivers.
“If we’re moving in this direction, we need to make that decision sooner than later so that we can begin the operational work,” he said.
Changing start times can have a range of impacts on after-school activities and athletics, as evidenced in Anne Arundel. Students whose sports are daylight dependent, such as golf, have had to leave class earlier for matches and schools can no longer host triple-header basketball games on Friday nights due to scheduling roll ups.
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“It’s been a challenge to move through all the changes and the impact on the athletic program,” said Clayton Culp, Anne Arundel’s athletics coordinator. “But I’m also happy to report that we haven’t seen a big dip in participation numbers.”
The earliest Anne Arundel weekday games now start at 4:45 p.m., which Culp said has been manageable. Starting high school at 8 a.m. in Howard County would push most junior varsity weekday games from 4 p.m. to 4:30 and varsity games from 5:30 p.m. to 6, according to HCPSS athletics coordinator John Davis. Starting school days at 9:15 a.m. would lead to 5:30 and 7 p.m. game times for junior varsity and varsity, respectively.
Despite the learning curve, Culp said no Anne Arundel teams have had to implement before-school practices. Coach retention — a major concern expressed by some Howard staff — has not been a major issue, Culp said.
In a Jan. 24 presentation to the Howard school board, nationally recognized sleep scientist and clinical psychologist Wendy Troxel said that adjustment periods for new school start times are inevitable, but well worth it.
“School districts that have done this have often found that the perceived challenges are often overestimated,” Troxel said. “Efficiencies can be found and solutions to problems that they weren’t even aware of can be discovered when adolescent sleep is put at the forefront.”
Ahead of its Feb. 23 vote on the subject, the Howard County school board will hold a final public work session on Feb. 15 at 4:30 p.m. to discuss proposed bell times.
More information can be found at: https://www.hcpss.org/schools/opening-and-closing-times/evaluation.