On Tuesday, the Lexington School Committee reviewed an early-stage proposal to shift elementary school start times earlier by over an hour starting in the 2023-24 school year. No vote was taken on the proposal at this week’s meeting; the district plans to conduct additional public outreach, including offering two public forums, prior to holding any School Committee vote.
This proposal opens a new chapter in a years-long community debate about school start times predating the pandemic. Different shifts were implemented last year following a unanimous 2018 School Committee vote to delay high school start times by 45 minutes and make smaller adjustments at other levels in light of clear research on the benefits of later start times for adolescents. During Tuesday’s presentation, Superintendent Julie Hackett explained that the latest proposed change, which would shift the elementary start time from 9 a.m. to about 7:45 a.m., especially seeks to alleviate transportation challenges resulting from the later start times first implemented last year. With the district in its second year of the new schedule, “elementary seems to be the area most in need of an adjustment,” per the presentation.
Foremost among the current transportation challenges: “All elementary students are getting home late” due to tight turnaround for the district’s tiered bus schedule, Hackett said. Lexington currently uses about 36 buses, which are shared across grade levels; in the afternoons, buses pick up high school students at 3:10 p.m. and have just 20 minutes before the end of the elementary school day at 3:30 p.m. Because of that short interval, in practice, some elementary buses don’t pick up students until after 4 p.m., according to Bridge Principal Meg Colella. That means many students in Lexington aren’t arriving home until 4:30 p.m., with METCO students arriving in Boston as late as 6 p.m. Those delays ripple across and beyond the school day; for instance, when LPS athletic transportation is delayed, that’s generally because buses are still taking elementary students home.
Hackett added that she’s also seen elementary school students arriving late for the start of the school day, when elementary buses also first complete the high school route.
Additionally, because of the later start times implemented last year, Lexington buses transporting METCO students are now caught in traffic with Boston Public Schools buses on the same schedule, increasing the time students are stuck on the bus.
“I would rather not be talking about any kind of tweaking at this point in time,” Hackett said, “but in this case it seems like some revision of what we have in place could be useful.”
The proposed elementary change would not necessarily fix all LPS transportation challenges; in particular, it would still require a tighter-than-ideal turnaround in the mornings from elementary to middle school bus routes. But, the change could alleviate multiple other challenges at once, Hackett said.
According to Hackett’s presentation, the proposed elementary change would make Lexington’s elementary school start time one of the earliest in the region, whereas it is currently among the latest in the region.
Beyond transportation challenges, Bridge Principal Colella added that in her experience elementary school students are most attentive in the morning. Literacy and math instructors always vie for morning instruction time, she said. Additionally, the current later elementary start time has created challenges for staff who rely on childcare, though she acknowledged that an earlier start time would create different childcare challenges for some.
School Committee members discussed some of the potential trade-offs and benefits of the proposed change, such as whether having young students waiting for the bus in the dark in the morning would be any safer or less safe than having them do so in the evening. Member Eileen Jay said that, while she thought this proposal merited serious consideration, she had some reservations about shifting too early for elementary school students. She suggested that also considering some smaller start time tweaks at other levels, while less convenient than a single change, might open up other possibilities for increasing transition time between bus tiers.
To gather additional community input, the district plans to have elementary principals share the proposal with their respective PTAs/PTOs and school councils. Middle and high school principals will also make Tuesday’s presentation available to parent groups. The district does not currently plan on gathering survey data because past survey results have been “extremely varied,” per the presentation.
“If we go out to the community and ask ‘what do you want,’ we’re going to get as many different answers as there are community members, so that’s what makes this a bit tricky,” Hackett said.
More than 60 community members attended Tuesday’s meeting via Zoom. Several parents and a few educators weighed in on the proposal during an opportunity for public comment.
Nicola Rinaldi said that for the past two years, her son has been arriving at school at 9 a.m. or later. Because he has some executive functioning challenges, getting to school with no adjustment time “has been quite challenging for him,” she said.
LPS parent Lori Giterman, on the other hand, expressed concern about the proposed change cutting into the sleep of elementary school students. “We really have to find a way to continue to support the high school students’ need for a later start time without sacrificing the healthy development and education of our elementary students,” she said.
Bowman educator Caitlin Sawka expressed concern about the proposed changes’ potential effects on elementary school teachers and students alike. As a teacher who lives far from Lexington, she said the change would “drastically impact the lives of teachers across the district.” As the mother of a two-year-old son, she worried about finding before-school care, noting that it “is very difficult to find a safe and effective daycare for your child, as well as affordable” and it can take over a year to find and secure a spot.
“There will never be unanimity on a topic like school start times,” Hackett said during the presentation.