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For the 2018-’19 school year, start times as Guilford High School will move back by 15 minutes, to 7:40 a.m., to better accommodate teen sleep patterns. To accomodate bus schedules, the middle end elementary schools will start 10 and 5 minutes later, respectively. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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Bill Bloss has been on the Board of Education (BOE) since 1999, nearly 20 years and a good percentage of them as board chair. So at the BOE meeting on July 9 when Bloss (D) said the issue of school start times has been one of the most difficult and debated issues the board has ever encountered, it set the stage for a significant and dramatic vote.
Ultimately the board formally voted to move the Guilford High School (GHS) start time back 15 minutes for the next academic year, back 10 minutes for the middle schools, and five minutes for the elementary schools. While all board members were in agreement about the need to move the high school start time, there was disagreement, split along party lines, over how much movement was appropriate for this coming year.
Under the new model, presented by the start time taskforce and supported by Superintendent of Schools Dr. Paul Freeman, the GHS start time moves from 7:25 to 7:40 a.m., the middle schools would start 10 minutes later at 8:10 a.m., and the elementary schools would start five minutes later at 9:05 a.m.
The greater shift at the high school is made possible by a five-minute reduction in the school day by shaving time off the passing periods—not instructional time—and the 10-minute shift at both GHS and the middle school. All schools had to see some change in start time to make a delayed start at the high school because of the way the bus system works in town.
The original proposal had included a 10-minute push at the elementary school as well, but after hearing from parents concerned about and even later elementary school start, the taskforce and administration found what Bloss referred to as “a compromise of a compromise” by looking at streamlining bus routes to only push the elementary starts back five minutes.
“I am deeply sorry that there is not an easier fix or remedy, but there isn’t,” Bloss said. “I think this has been the hardest issue we have looked at in the last 20 years of not being able to accomplish everything we want for everybody…I think this is an issue that is not going to disappear. It is an issue that we are going to continue to monitor and I’m sure we will do so in a responsible way and a thoughtful way and make sure we are advancing the educational interests of all of the students in this town.”
A Question of Confidence
The new start time model was approved 5 to 4, Democrats versus Republicans. The issue wasn’t over the need to have later school start times, but rather the level of confidence board members have in the bus company’s ability to “find efficiencies”—or shave time off each run—that allow for the later starts.
Guilford has a new bus company this year and is using new routing software. Representatives of the new company had told the taskforce and the superintendent that the company can make this work and get to the schools on time. However, since the bus company has yet to do the actual runs with students on the bus, some board members were cautious about assuming that theoretical efficiencies could be realized.
Republican members of the board sought to move the GHS start time back five minutes this year, not changing the other schools’ times, and letting the bus company take a year to work out any potential issues and make sure the more efficient runs are actually possible. Board member Ted Sands (R) said historically changes in the bus system or stops don’t always sit well with parents in the beginning and the board is taking a risk moving start times and bringing on a new bus company simultaneously.
“I am worried about how long it’s going to take a new bus company to find these efficiencies that the computer is finding,” he said. “The nature of logistics is that a ripple at the beginning turns into a wave. That’s just the cycle and so I think that we have too many unknowns here and the possibility that we could have some major delays for the bus participants at the end of the cycle, which is unfortunately the elementary side.”
Board member Christine Cohen (D) said the bus company has confidence this model can work and if anything, it has been a bit conservative in its estimations. Some board members pointed out that Freeman was clear there would be no changes to start times mid-year, so what can the board do if the bus company is wrong and the time savings are not there? Bloss said if that is the case, the board has two options.
“One would be you add a van, because remember it’s not every run that creates the problem, it’s the longest bus run,” he said. “So say the longest run is 50 minutes and that’s messing up the schedule. What you do is you can shift five students from that run to an adjoining run that is shorter, or you can hire a van to take five students on that run and five students on the adjacent run and that would shorten both by say 10 minutes.”
Even with a so-called back-up plan if something goes wrong, some board members still questioned if it was a good idea to make the change this year and not wait to see if the bus company or district could find even greater time savings in a year of study and maybe be able to move the GHS start time even further back in 2019-’20.
Board members have repeatedly emphasized the science behind the need for more sleep for teenagers. While some questioned if an additional 15 minutes will have any significant benefit on student mental and emotional health, Bloss said people need to take a step back and realize a later start time is not a magic solution to improving student mental health and reducing anxiety.
“I only have one regret about the amount of time we have spent on this over the last four years and that is it has overshadowed everything else that we are trying to do on the issue of student emotional and mental health,” he said. “It is only one of multiple things we are trying to do in this district to relieve anxiety and make life better for our students…There are multiple potential remedies that we have implemented and need to continue to implement, so I want everyone to take a step back and realize we should neither expect too much from a later start time nor should we minimize that it is potentially part of a larger picture.”
Board member Amy Sullivan (R) said she is also concerned that just moving the GHS start time back 15 minutes might hinder momentum to try to eventually achieve an even later start time down the road. Board member Katie Balestracci (D) countered by saying making a move now doesn’t mean the board stops looking at the issue; she said it’s time the board did something.
“I think we jump at the opportunity and make it work and potentially find even more efficiencies while we’re doing it,” Balestracci said. “We have been waiting a long time and every year it’s another 275 to 300 kids who enter the school system who have to be up and functioning ready to go at a time that is earlier than most adults have to work.”
At the end of the lengthy discussion, the board voted on two motions. The first was to just move the GHS start time back five minutes and take another year of study, and that motion was defeated 4 to 5. The second motion was to move forward with the GHS 15 minutes push and associated changes at the lower schools, which was approved 5 to 4 along party lines.
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