Howard County Times
Howard County

As vote on new Howard school bell times looms, officials debate impact on health, child care and transportation

With the Howard County Board of Education poised to vote Feb. 23 on whether to adopt new school start times for next school year, officials met Monday to discuss how the decision could affect student health, transportation and child care.

After years of debate on school hours, the board will choose next week between two proposals that would change start times or it could decide to keep the status quo. Currently, all county high schools begin classes at 7:25 a.m., while start times range from as early as 8:15 a.m. to as late as 9:25 a.m. for elementary schools and from 7:40 a.m. to 8:25 a.m. for middle schools.


The 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.

The second option would swap tiers 1 and 3, meaning high schools would begin classes the latest, at 9:15 a.m.


At Monday’s joint meeting of the County Council and school board, council member Deb Jung questioned why the school system didn’t consider placing high school start times in Tier 2. She pointed to new times implemented this school year by Anne Arundel County Public Schools, whose high schools now start at 8:30 a.m., between elementary (8 a.m.) and middle (9:15 a.m.) schools.

“Any school start time for high school students that starts at 8 a.m. will probably not allow high school students to really benefit from that extra sleep,” Jung said.

A 2014 American Academy of Pediatrics study recommends that middle and high school students begin classes at 8:30 a.m. or later to increase the opportunity for sufficient sleep. At public hearings held by the board, a number of county high schoolers said their current schedules make it nearly impossible to achieve the eight to 10 hours of sleep recommended for teenagers by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

“At Centennial, most students are lucky to get half of that recommendation on a daily basis,” Centennial High School sophomore Cindy Zhan said. “Many have even expressed that they focus more on keeping themselves awake during school than on the content of the classes themselves.”

Director of Student Transportation Brian Nevin said the school board considered moving high schools to the 8:40 a.m. tier, but found the shift would have cost about $3 million, because it would require at least 30 more buses.

“I think that the community would find it more acceptable probably to have an 8:40 a.m. high school start time than a 9:15 high school start time,” school board Chair Antonia Watts said. “We as a board did advocate for that but the cost is a limiting factor.”


The 9:15 a.m. start time option would result in 4 p.m. dismissals for high schoolers, which some students argued would overextend the school day and limit their ability to participate in extracurricular activities, sports and after-school jobs.

“Most [Centennial students] shared a common perspective,” said Zhan, who presented the results of a survey conducted by Centennial’s Student Government Association. “Having a later start time would be nice, but their passions and after-school interests are also a priority.”

The Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks employs 25 high schoolers as aids in its elementary school aftercare program, which has more than 500 children on its waitlist because of staffing shortages. The Columbia Association also has 12 high schoolers working in its aftercare program and about 100 serving as lifeguards and swim instructors, according to Leslie Barnett, assistant director of community programs and services.

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“The thought of losing 25 staff in a program that already has a significant waiting list is obviously a huge concern to us,” Bureau Chief of Recreation Nicola Morgal said.

Flipping high schools to Tier 3 and elementary schools to Tier 1 would mean an earlier 2:30 p.m. dismissal for elementary schoolers, potentially leading to a drastic increase in aftercare needs for parents unable to adjust their work schedules to pick up or take care of their children, Morgal said.


“We anticipate the waiting lists would increase,” she said. “Even private child care couldn’t keep up with the demand that would be needed.”

However, an 8 a.m. high school start time would have “minimal impact” on aftercare programs, according to Recreation and Parks Director Raul Delerme.

Despite the logistical hurdles, Jung said she still favored an 8:40 a.m. or later start time for the county’s high schoolers.

“If we’re really going to make a difference in the health of our students, if we’re really going to address some of these mental health issues, if we’re going to make sure that our high school students are getting enough sleep, we should be doing it right the first time,” she said. “It’s going to be impossible to change it again.”

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