Students, parents and stakeholders from across Howard County gathered in Ellicott City Tuesday to urge the Board of Education to shift school start times for the 2023-2024 school year.
“The lack of appropriate school hours is not a problem that students should have to solve,” testified Audrey Grutzik, a Marriotts Ridge High School junior. “Early high school start times are a public health issue.”
School staff and consulting firm Decision Support Group LLC, have conducted an evaluation of potential bell time adjustments and laid out improvements to bus schedules, landing on two proposals the school board is expected to vote on Feb. 23.
HCPSS high schools begin class at 7:25 a.m., while elementary start times range from 8:40 to 9:25 a.m. and middle schools range from 7:40 a.m. to 8:25 a.m.
The final start time 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.
The board can choose to proceed with either proposal or maintain the existing system.
At Tuesday’s hearing, some high schoolers said current start times made it nearly impossible to achieve the eight to 10 hours of sleep recommended for teenagers by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Adolescents with sleep deprivation are at higher risk of obesity, diabetes, poor mental health and a variety of attention and behavioral problems, according to the CDC.
“I’ve often found myself doing homework until 12 or one in the morning, knowing that I’d only be getting five to six hours of sleep before I had to wake up to get to school by the 7:25 a.m. bell,” said Alex Hwang, a Marriotts Ridge High School junior.
While a number of speakers favored shifting high school bell times to the latest possible tier, Long Reach High School junior Isabella Roberts warned that 9:15 a.m. start times would end school days too late, particularly for students with multiple activities and sports.
“I’m fully behind the idea of moving school start times to eight o’clock in the morning,” said Roberts, who participates in Long Reach’s student government, mock trial team and theater program. “But 9:15 is too much of a change, too much of a dangerous idea that risks far more than a few tired students. It risks the creative and athletic outlets that make them themselves.”
Lisbon Elementary School PTA President Cathy Datz added that ending the school day later would mean more commutes home in the dark, a dangerous prospect for students in the rural western part of the county.
“Our students walk half a mile down one-lane [and] two-lane roads to their driveways,” said Datz, who supported 8 a.m. high school start times. “Our parents are very concerned about the safety aspect of that.”
A recent survey conducted by the Howard County Association of Supervisors and Administrators showed mixed reactions from school officials. Of 159 principals, athletic managers and central office employee respondents, 44.9% supported changing school start times while 41.1% were against changes; 13.9% said they were neutral on the issue.
In written responses, administrators voiced concerns with scheduling athletic practices and games and issues related to the existing bus driver shortage.
But proponents of new start times say the health benefits to students far outweigh logistical hurdles.
A petition started by the Howard County chapter of Start School Later Maryland that asks the school board to push all bell times to 8 a.m. or later had received more than 2,700 signatures as of Wednesday.
“After decades of discussion plus all of the research and consensus opinions which only continue to grow, it’s not a question of if to implement but a question of how to implement,” said Lisa Van Buskirk, who leads Start School Later Maryland’s Anne Arundel County chapter.
The Anne Arundel school board implemented new school start times in August, moving high schools an hour later from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. In that county, elementary schools now start at 8 a.m., and middle schools begin at 9:15.
Ahead of its final February vote the Howard County school board will hold another public hearing (Jan. 26 at 7 p.m.) and two public work sessions (Jan. 24 at 1:30 p.m. and Feb. 15 at 4:30 p.m.) to receive community input.
Community members must register to testify at a public hearing and can also submit written testimony. More information can be found at https://www.hcpss.org/board/meeting-participation.