ROCKVILLE – The Montgomery County Public Schools Board of Education voted 5-3 on Tuesday to push school start times 20 minutes later for high school and elementary school, against the wishes of many parents hoping to delay high school by an hour.
The BOE chose the lowest-cost option to start for the 2015-2016 school year, which means that high school would start at 7:45 instead of 7:25, middle school would start at 8:15 instead of 7:55 and elementary schools tier 1 and tier 2 would start at 9:00 and 9:25 but end 20 minutes later than before, adding 10 minutes to recess and lunch. Shortening the transportation window will offset the $1.07 million cost for extra lunch hour aide positions.
BOE Vice President Mike Durso voted against the measure along with members Chris Barclay and Judy Docca.
Board President Patricia O’Neill said this will likely not be the last time the board acts on this issue.
“We’ve debated this quite a bit,” O’Neill said. “Issues continue to recycle. The issue of bell times has come before the board several times before. This is just hitting the snooze button maybe two cycles.”
The board considered school start times for high schoolers after a workgroup considered the increasing scientific research showing the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation on adolescents. After initially recommending a $21 million dollar option, Superintendent Joshua Starr came back with lower-cost recommendations ranging from no-cost to nearly $6 million.
Durso said he ultimately did not vote in favor of even the low-cost option because of the effects on low-income families. Durso said in his experience as a principal in Washington, D.C. public schools versus other districts, he did not see start time make an overwhelming difference in student behavior or performance.
“I didn’t see any reason to make that change even though it was very small. Now the majority voted for that. It does not have a price tag so I think we can live with that, but I just didn’t see (the need for) that,” Durso said. “I was concerned about a later end of the day for elementary, as I mentioned in there I was really concerned about having elementary start first. Almost every rationale has a corresponding reason not to do it.”
The board also discussed and voted down board member Phil Kauffman’s proposal to delay implementation for a year but use one of the options that started elementary school first and middle school last, which cost $3.9 million. Only three members voted in favor.
O’Neill voted in favor of the 20-minute change, but said it was not possible to make more drastic changes in the current budget conditions. Most of the cost for the other options would have come from buying more buses as the window for buses to complete their routes would overlap.
But parents and students, dozens of whom attended a “sleep-in” protest the day before the vote, said the budget is no excuse for what is a “matter of public health,” in the words of Erica Antonelli, a parent of two middle schoolers.
Antonelli said her children already have trouble falling asleep early enough because of their circadian rhythms. She also said many other jurisdictions have already implemented later start times for high schoolers, including Fairfax and Loudoun counties in Virginia.
“It’s a matter of public health and so we should be able to figure out…because it has such a huge effect,” she said. “If everybody else has been able to figure it out, I don’t know why MCPS hasn’t.”
Officials at the American Academy of Pediatrics have said adolescents should start no earlier than 8:30 for their health. Many parents cited how sleep deprivation has been linked to increased likelihood of depression and thoughts of suicide. But some board members said they found testimony that linked a student’s suicide Monday night to sleep deprivation “hurtful.”
“I have never been so offended,” said board member Rebecca Smondrowski, who said she had been affected by loss in her family and did not think anyone could imagine what the student’s family was going through.
“I would never use a tragedy in our system to push forward my agenda or any agenda I think is worthy,” Barclay said.
At the sleep-in the day before, students said the research on sleep deprivation and better performance in school held true in their daily lives. Theresa Davison, a freshman at Walter Johnson High School, said she usually goes to sleep close to midnight and wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to catch her 6:43 a.m. bus.
“I always have a lot of difficulty focusing in class and later when I’m working on homework,” Davison said. “(Sometimes) I won’t remember what the teacher said because I was focused on staying awake.”
Davison also said 20 minutes is enough to get dressed or watch part of a TV show, but it’s not really enough to make a difference for sleep. Her sister Natalie, a seventh grader at Tilden Middle School, agreed.
“It would help a little because it’s the equivalent of hitting the snooze button a couple of times, but it would not (help that much),” she said.
Natalie said she already feels easily distracted and exhausted throughout the day on a middle school schedule.