Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post
The Washington Post
Debate over school
start times flares anew
By Donna St. George
Nearly two years after Montgomery County leaders voted to start the
school day later so teenagers could get more sleep, the debate that
many thought was settled shows signs of making a comeback in Maryland’s
largest school system. Principals in elementary schools have been
speaking out about the toll of schedule changes — drowsy children,
longer bus rides, families strapped for child care. Employee unions are
urging a return to the school hours of old, saying it would be best for
students and staff. But parents who support later school days have
weighed in, too, with many emailing letters backing the changes adopted
in early 2015.
“Please do NOT revert to old bell times!!!” one high school parent
wrote. “If anything I wish high school bell times were later.”
The issue came up briefly at a school board meeting in December and is
on the agenda for the Jan. 10 meeting. “I think there have been some
unintended consequences,” said Michael A. Durso, board president.
“We’ll look at it and discuss it and maybe there are some angles we
haven’t thought of,” he added. “We’re just kind of exploratory at this
The 2015 decision to reset the 7:25 a.m. opening bells of high school
20 minutes later — to 7:45 a.m. — followed more than two years of study
and debate and was viewed by some elected leaders as a no-cost “first
step” toward healthier school hours for teenagers.
Supporters have argued that later high school start times are in line
with research showing that adolescents are biologically wired for later
bedtimes and wake-ups, and that lack of rest is linked to increased
risks of depression, car accidents and other problems.
But the changes at high schools affected schedules across the
204-school system. Elementary schools, which open in two waves, now
start at 9 a.m. or 9:25 a.m., 10 minutes later than before, and their
dismissals come 20 minutes later, so the length of the school day has
Principals at later-starting elementary schools have appeared at the
board’s past three meetings to describe what they see as the fallout.
Several talked about children being dropped off at school overly early
by parents who need to get to work.
Dorothea Fuller, principal of Galway Elementary School, told the board
that although the school’s PTA provides an after-school-activity bus so
students can join in sports workshops, reading support, choir and other
programs, fewer students do so because families worry about them
arriving home by bus in the dark.
“With the change in bell times, student participation has dropped 30
percent,” she said.
Dina Brewer, principal at Sherwood Elementary School, said the change
has led to a loss of instructional time, because children grow tired
during a late-starting, longer day and buses frequently run late,
Brewer recalled that on three occasions she received calls after 6 p.m.
from teachers who happened to still be at the school when a bus
returned with a child who had fallen asleep on the way home and was
discovered at the end of the route. She said the school had never had
students brought back so late.
“I’m sure you can appreciate the fear and panic that this caused,” she
Many teachers say they notice that elementary school students,
especially the youngest, grow tired as the afternoons wear on, said
Valerie Coll, a teacher at Flora M. Singer Elementary. “They tucker
out,” she said. “Not all students are able to develop the academic
The union that represents the county’s principals and administrators
asked the board in November to return schools to the schedules they had
in 2014-2015. The teachers union did the same, in a Nov. 2 letter to
“We believe a return to the 2014-2015 bell schedule is in the best
interest of our students and educators,” the letter said.
But a number of parents and advocates have weighed in strongly on the
other side, saying the board should not scrap healthier start times for
“That would be a horrible step backward,” said Mandi Mader, a
Montgomery County parent who launched a 2012 petition that sparked the
effort for change.
Mader said she and others welcome more discussion of the issue and
would like to see a better solution for the most-affected elementary
schools. They say they’ve always wanted healthy bell times for all, not
just for teenagers. “Many districts have figured this out,” she said.
School board member Patricia O’Neill, 3rd District, said the school
system’s choices have long been influenced by economics and
School buses travel multiple routes each day — so that a vehicle
transporting high school students in the early morning is used later
for middle-schoolers and later still for children in elementary grades.
Not everyone can go to school at the same time, she said.
“This is a complex issue that has been studied and studied and studied
over the years,” she said. “There is no perfect solution other than to
buy more buses and hire more drivers,” which she sees as unlikely given
budget constraints and needs such as addressing the achievement gap.
O’Neill said that complaints about some elementary schools starting too
late preceded the change in bell times. Although she does not back a
return to earlier hours at high schools, she would like to work toward
a solution for the district’s later-scheduled elementary schools.
Elise Browne Hughes, a Bethesda parent and PTA leader, said the change
at high schools has been better than expected.
Her teenage son has long struggled to wake up and was often a few
minutes tardy for school, she said. She was skeptical about how much
could be gained with a 20-minute shift. But she says his mornings are
markedly better — and he gets to school on time. “It really did make a
difference,” she said.
Experts say adolescents need 8½ to 9½ hours of sleep a night but find
it hard to fall asleep before 11 because of their natural sleep cycles.
Eric Guerci, the student member of the school board, said that leaders
of Montgomery’s countywide student government passed a resolution in
December against returning to the bell times of the 2014-2015 school
year. Although the current hours may not be perfect, he said, many see
them as a benefit overall: “They’re seen as representing a positive
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