Concern for “the little ones” echoed off cafeteria walls on the evening of February 20 at the Onteora Central School District’s public forum on changing the starting school times of older students, a move that would make primary school students come in later.
The audience of approximately 50 was composed, by a show of hands, of roughly 75% elementary school constituents. Collectively, they turned up the volume on the complications they see coming as a result of what was widely perceived among them to be a “done deal.”
The “deal” was adopted by the Board of Education last October in a resolution to push secondary school start times from 7:40 a.m. to no later than 8 a.m. by this September. By aligning start times with teens’ natural sleep patterns, research has shown better academic performance, reduced tardiness and absences, less depression, and fewer car accidents.
With the District’s currently configured bus runs, however, the proposed change for secondary students would beget a similar move for those in elementary school, a constituency for whom the current start time, studies say, does not present health issues, but purportedly would — if changed by as little as 15 minutes — present considerable headaches for their parents, teachers, bus drivers, and other caregivers.
Under the proposed new schedules, elementary school bus drop-off and pick-up times would be bumped from 8:45 a.m. to 9 a.m., and, in the afternoon, from 3:30 p.m. to between 3:45 p.m. and 3:55 p.m. with the latter, according to long-term elementary school teacher Melissa Johnson, limiting extracurricular activities for the youngsters during prime instruction time. Speaking again as a parent, Johnson added that the changes would also require her to hire someone to get her son on the bus so that she could get to work on time.
A state worker concurred, sharing that he had zero flexibility in what time he arrived to work. Jennie Gelfand, the grandmother of a third-grader, pointed out that while high school kids can get on and off the bus by themselves, parents or grandparents need to accompany the younger set. Variations on this concern were expressed repeatedly, including by Frank Nagele, owner of Clean Cut Mowing, who did the math, saying, “We live close to the school, so our child gets picked up late in the run. The extra 15 minutes means that my wife won’t be able to get to work on time. That means I will have to pay someone $25 per hour over 180 days, or a total of $4500 per school year.”
Minimizing the impact to elementary scheduling was among the priorities outlined in a Proposed Secondary Start Time Plan presented on December 3, 2019, along with maintaining the integrity of the academic program, ensuring students have access to BOCES technical programs, maintaining the integrity of the athletic and other after school programs, adhering to bargaining agreements, and complying with State attendance regulations.
Superintendant of Schools Victoria McLaren emphasized that the proposed new secondary start and end times are only 15 and seven minutes later, respectively, than they currently stand, and noted that given its geography and size, the 16th largest in the state, the District is limited in the scope of changes it can make. Configured of four buildings in three towns, the District is itself being examined for changes, including the potential for consolidation in the coming years, and some questioned the wisdom of making such a change now rather than including it as one aspect of the longer-term plan.
Adding to the dilemma is the dwindling supply of bus drivers not just in the region, but nationwide. Alexandria Weir, a bus driver whose runs originate from Pine Hill, attended the forum along with two other drivers. She has the only K-6 bus run in the whole District. “I see how these kids are in the mornings and afternoons. If they are going to come home later, I can expect more students to be falling asleep on the bus on their ride home,” she shared.
Tony Fletcher, a former school board President, co-author of the 2014 policy brief Later School Start Times for Adolescents, and current parent of a district 9th grader asserted that “the science is irrefutable on this. In every district that has adopted later start times, there was a degree of upheaval and upset, but they have consistently come around and spoken to its benefits.”
Several attendees emphasized that they were not questioning the science, but rather, the broader implications. Others expressed doubts that either the sprawling district didn’t fit into the research and/or about the effectiveness of a 15-minute change. “Are we just being progressive for the sake of being progressive?” wondered Denise Warren, President of the Phoenicia Elementary PTA.
As the evening threatened to go long, several attendees pressed for a response to the question of whether the later start times were already “a done deal,” citing teachers, parents, and students who were not there that night due to public perception that their input wouldn’t change things. In response, Trustee Bennet Ratcliff assured them that he was not wasting his time or theirs. “You weren’t included, it was a mistake, and we get it. But we are here now because this is the right way to do this,” and adding, “We have over $50 million to run this school. What are your priorities: free before and aftercare, separate bus runs for elementary and high school students?”
In a follow-up statement, Ms. Weir responded to the idea of separate bus runs, saying, “we could not feasibly bus students,” if that was the decision. “We would have drivers out on MS/HS runs and Elementary runs simultaneously. This is impossible since we do not have enough drivers to begin with.”
Trustee Robert Burke Warren, who served as moderator for the forum, brought it to a finish by assuring those in attendance that the conversation would be continued. “I guarantee we care about the elementary kids. I came here to raise my kid and it was the best decision I ever made. But you’re right, the communication has sucked, and we are working to improve that,” he said, promising, “we’re going to do this again.”