No 7:40 a.m. start time sign
Several parents carried signs opposing a proposal for a 7:40 a.m. start time for Lexington elementary schools at Discovery Day earlier this month. (Erin Sandler-Rathe / LexObserver)

Less than three weeks after Superintendent Julie Hackett introduced a proposal for School Committee consideration to shift elementary school start times over an hour earlier next year, she put the proposal on hold.

“There will be no change to elementary start times next year, but yet-to-be-determined start time changes are still on the table for future years,” she wrote in an LPS communication Sunday.

The pause represents a change of course from just days earlier. As recently as last week’s School Committee meeting, Hackett reiterated her recommendation that the Committee hold a vote on the proposal to shift elementary start times from 9 a.m. to 7:40 a.m. for the 2023-24 school year at its Oct. 25 meeting. In her initial presentation outlining the reasoning behind this proposal, Hackett explained that LPS shares 36 buses across elementary, middle and high school tiers; when the district first implemented later 8:30 a.m. high school start times last year, it decreased the transition time between bus tiers. Hackett said that this has led to elementary school buses consistently picking up and dropping off elementary students late, especially in the afternoons. With a 7:40 a.m.-2:10 p.m. elementary school day, Hackett aimed to increase the transition times for buses between tiers, especially in the afternoon, where delays are currently concentrated. At the same time, she suggested this change could have other benefits, such as making life easier for working parents and caregivers in need of before-school care. An Oct. 25 vote, she said, was necessary to give families and community members sufficient lead time to plan for any changes the School Committee decided to approve.

But many parents were alarmed by this proposal, and the short lead time for such a consequential decision. At last week’s School Committee meeting alone, several elementary parents spoke in opposition to the proposal and the short decision-making timeline during opportunities for public comment. In particular, multiple parents expressed concerns about losing cherished evening family time, negative impacts on young children’s sleep, and inability to access adequate after-school care, as previously reported. One parent, Meng Yang, referenced a petition she had circulated opposing the Oct. 25 vote and start time change; that petition has now gained more than 1,100 signatures.

“Petitions and protests are a normal part of any change process in Lexington, but they do not unduly influence our decision-making,” Hackett wrote in her communication. “What does matter is the meaningful feedback that we hear from our educators, parents, and caregivers.”

In an interview on Monday, Hackett explained that she made the decision to pause the proposal in consultation with administrators “towards the end of the week and into the weekend.” Administrators who contributed to the decision-making included elementary school principals, program directors including METCO leadership, the LPS transportation coordinator and Central Office leadership, she said.

Pushback from community members did not come as a surprise to Hackett. For her, the surprise was that many parents and staff agreed that “a change would be good,” she said, though they did not agree on what that change should be.

“We weren’t looking to build consensus,” she said. “We were looking to figure out ‘what is the most meaningful change that we could make that would benefit our students most?’”

With the proposal “paused” rather than scrapped, could a 7:40 a.m. elementary start time still be on the table in the future? “All options still have to be on the table as we look and learn more,” Hackett said. “But…we certainly hear that people aren’t interested in starting that early, so we would factor that into our thinking and planning.”

Reactions to the proposal, and pause

Even after Hackett put the proposal on hold, the School Committee moved forward with both of its scheduled virtual public hearings about the proposal Monday afternoon and Tuesday evening. About 90 community members attended in total between the two forums, according to School Committee Chair Sara Cuthbertson. Approximately 20 community members spoke up during each hour-long session.

The majority of speakers were parents who thanked Hackett for pausing the proposal, and the School Committee for moving ahead with holding the forums, but criticized the proposal process as rushed and insufficiently transparent. Many parents also said the reasoning presented for a 7:40 a.m. start time, a drastic 80-minute change from their current schedule, did not make a strong enough case or answer all of their questions. 

“A process where we have a proposal that makes an extreme change for one population, and then [an] upcoming vote – it just really made a lot of people on edge and nervous,” said Dustin Tingley, who has two children attending Bowman.

Hackett’s push for an Oct. 25 vote, while intended to provide families with enough notice to plan ahead for any changes approved, was instead perceived by some as a rush to force change on families. Some parents also assumed that the positive outcome of a School Committee vote on this proposal was a foregone conclusion, despite explicit assurances that it was not from Hackett last week.

“If the parents did not band together to raise our hand and ask the questions, a vote would have happened on October 25,” said Fara Goldberg at Tuesday’s community input session. “A lot of us are just concerned about how open communication and transparency between the School Committee and parents is going to happen going forward.”

“Nationally, there is this underlying cynicism and mistrust of one another, and that also permeates the public school setting,” Hackett said. “When you undertake change, that trust is challenged, I think, at an even deeper level.”

“We do, I think…as good a job as we can do to reassure people that we are very curious about the problem that we’re trying to solve, that we’ll always listen to the feedback,” she added. “In this process, we’re just doing our best to be transparent every step of the way.”

On the School Committee front, Cuthbertson wrote in an email that “With any decision that we make, we consider the impacts on students, operational implications, sustainability of the proposal, as well as feedback from all stakeholders in a wide variety of forms. The start time proposal would be no different.”

Cuthbertson added that community pushback to the proposal also did not come as a surprise to her. She recalled being a member of the School Start Time Task Force from 2016 to 2018. At a community forum in 2017, “feedback from elementary parents was very similar,” she wrote. “Though the pandemic has changed circumstances for some families, I anticipated that we would receive similar feedback this time around.”

That said, “I certainly understand the concern about the condensed timeline initially proposed for this decision,” she wrote. In her view, School Committee public comment periods, forums, elementary school listening sessions, feedback forms and emails “gave a wide range of options for providing feedback that could fit with varying family schedules.”

In describing current transportation challenges, Hackett has said that many METCO elementary students returning to Boston arrive home as late as 6 p.m. under the current schedule, as previously reported

Still, one METCO parent who spoke at Monday’s public forum, Keesa McKoy, had reservations about the 7:40 a.m. proposal along similar lines to many Lexington-based parents. 

“It’s really unclear to families within the METCO program what impact this would have on actual outcomes for our bus schedules,” she said. “I didn’t feel like we were given enough information to make an educated and smart decision about it.” While McKoy does not necessarily oppose a slightly earlier time, “I do think 80 minutes is a bit extreme, or just too much.”

Multiple attempts to reach LPS K-12 METCO Academic Director Barbara Hamilton for comment by press time were unsuccessful.

While the majority of speakers at both public forums critiqued the 7:40 a.m. start time proposal, a couple of forum attendees who favored the earlier start time proposal expressed disappointment about the pause. 

Urvi Kothari has two young children, one of whom will start elementary school next year. “I would still be one of the unpopular opinions here,” she said on Tuesday, “where both me and my husband work 45 minutes away from home – so if school is starting at nine o’clock, we would definitely not be making it to work on time.” She requested that LPS work to provide both before and after-school care to meet family needs in the future.

Organized parent opposition to 7:40 a.m.

Within the few weeks this proposal was considered, some parents in opposition did more than just voice their own concerns with it; they took action to inform and mobilize fellow parents.

Lori Giterman, who currently has children in kindergarten and 5th grade at Estabrook, was among the many parents who opposed the proposal. As a working mom whose children remain in after-school care until about 5:30 or 6 p.m. multiple days per week, the proposal would have meant losing “a minimum of an hour of our family time” because her current kindergartener would have to go to bed an hour earlier to get enough sleep.

In an interview, Giterman said that she was motivated to organize and inform other parents by a combination of factors. “It was the impact on family time; it was the impact on sleep; it was how quick it felt to be raised and wanting to vote,” she said. “And it was the fact that if it comes down to buses, I really do believe that we can explore alternative solutions, and hopefully find one.”

While Giterman understands that the School Committee and administrators extensively researched start time options and considerations in 2017 and 2018, before the School Committee voted to move the high school start time to 8:30 a.m., “That was five years ago,” she said. “And that was pre-COVID.”

“It stinks when you can’t reuse work,” she said. “But we can’t reuse that work; we have to start over and say, ‘where are we today? What are the needs today?’”

“We really need to engage the community in finding the best solutions, not just present one that’s already so far long,” she added.

When she first found out about the proposal after Hackett’s initial announcement to the School Committee, Giterman emailed about 200 parents to inform them that the proposal was on the table, drawing in part from her previous experience and contacts developed advocating for a safe return to full-time in-person learning in the spring of 2021 as part of the group Lexgobacktoschool. She also contacted parents from the Estabrook PTO directory and even parents she knows from coaching flag football. 

About 350 parents ultimately “opted in” to updates from her, she said. 

Giterman also sought to raise awareness in person by “knock[ing] on every car window that was in the pick-up line” one day at school to ask parents whether they were aware that this topic was being explored. She carried signs opposing the proposal on her walk to school for a few days, and at Discovery Day along with other parents.

Despite opposing the proposal personally, Giterman stressed that she has sympathy for families who are in need of before-school care. “We should be finding a way to have before-school care” without moving start times to 7:40 a.m., she said. Before she worked from home, “I probably would have liked before school care,” she added.

Giterman was “very relieved” about the pause, and grateful to Hackett for her decision. “I think they made the right decision to pause,” she said. “I think it was a very hard decision for them to make…I think that it demonstrates that they are, at least, listening.”

Moving forward, “I hope that we can build a bridge and work together,” she said, “and that the next proposal, it’s not going to be perfect, but I hope it feels like we’ve all had a say in the things to consider, and that the best path forward has been decided.”

Educators weigh in

Among educators, views on the 7:40 a.m. elementary proposal were fairly mixed, according to Lexington Education Association (LEA) President Avon Lewis. Because educator views were divided, the LEA did not take a formal position on the proposal.

“On the one hand, our elementary educators notice significant behavior problems in the last hour of school, especially with our littlest learners,” Lewis wrote in an email. “It is hard to make that last hour of school an effective learning experience….We are not set on 7:40, but we think that 9 is definitely too late.”

That said, “we also have a significant number of staff for whom the big shift in start time [would] represent a significant hardship for them with their finely tuned relationship with their day care providers,” she added. Many educators had already put down payments on day care for next year, which is one reason Lewis considered the end of October was “too late” to make a start time change for the next school year.

Lewis added that educators, like many parents, “hope for a more collaborative process going forward.”

Jesse Richardson, an LEA representative and educator at Estabrook for 25 years, comes from a family of teachers – from his parents, to his grandparents, to his brother, to his wife, who is a second grade teacher at Hastings. He observes some of the challenges of the current elementary schedule on a day-to-day basis. 

While his 4th grade students typically arrive in class on time, “in the afternoon, the buses tend to leave late,” he said, with some leaving up to half an hour after dismissal.

“Personally, I [wouldn’t] mind the earlier start time,” he said. Richardson is typically in the building by about 7:30 a.m. anyway, and his daughters are now in high school, so they are fairly self-sufficient getting themselves to school. “I would like having the extra time in the afternoon to get to my girls’ volleyball games and just get to do more things with my family,” he added. 

That said, “we are a little bit of a house divided, because my wife feels the 7:40 time would be too early.”

As a building representative, Richardson also heard from plenty of staff with young children who were alarmed by the proposal, and the prospect of having to scramble for day care that would open early enough to meet their needs. Some day cares seem to open later than they did pre-pandemic, Richardson said.

He remembers a similar struggle firsthand; when his daughters were younger, Richardson recalled that he and his wife “had to hire a morning babysitter just to get them on the bus.”

Staff parents of young children were not monolithic in their wariness of a 7:40 a.m. start time, however. “There were staff members that did speak up and say, similar to me, that they also have young children, and they also look forward to being able to spend more time with them at the end of the day,” Richardson said.

On the whole, the pause prompted “a lot of relief for a lot of the staff,” Richardson observed. But “for some of the staff that were really looking forward to it, they were a little bit upset.”

“It’s…probably the best decision at this time,” he said. Still, “I think that what a lot of the staff and myself were really hoping for [was]…some sort of compromise,” which might involve start time shifts at the middle and high school level as well. Richardson suggested that even an 8 a.m. start time, 20 minutes later than the original proposal, might be more manageable.

Echoing some parents, Richardson said that it was his impression that “the evidence really seemed to be lacking for the impact on elementary children” of such an early start time. In particular, he addressed one rationale of an earlier start time mentioned by Hackett and others beyond transportation and childcare considerations – that elementary students’ attention spans tend to wane in the final hour of the school day, therefore an earlier start time could contribute to better learning.

In his view, “it’s going to be a long day no matter what; at the end of the six-hour day, whatever we’re doing in the afternoon, the last block, we’re going to see some wear and tear on the children.”

On this front, Richardson noted that students could be experiencing residual pandemic impacts. “Our days this year, they seem especially longer,” he said. “I’m not sure if that’s just the nature of our schedule this year, or if it’s just the children coming out of more regular days after the pandemic, or all those things combined.”

In any case, “I’m kind of glad that the input was sort of taken to deposit and not to rush to a decision,” Richardson said. “Because I feel that that’s something that has happened in the past, where there’s just an rush to a decision, or a decision’s been made, and then we’ll sort of have to deal with it later.”

Before and after-school care at LPS

A common thread across concerns from parents and educators who supported and opposed this proposal alike: concerns about childcare availability and accessibility, both before and after school.

Kidsborough, the new contracted LPS after-school program as of this year, currently has waitlists at all six Lexington elementary schools. While those waitlists consist of just a few students at most schools, Bridge and Hastings have longer waitlists – about 15 students each, Kidsborough owner Christeen Rohwer said in an interview Wednesday. At the first School Committee meeting of this year, only Bridge had a waitlist, which the district had originally expected to be resolved by Oct. 1.

Those waitlists are a result of challenges hiring childcare staff as a consequence of the pandemic’s enduring impact on the industry, Rohwer said. In response, Kidsborough has increased its recruiting budget and is continuing to interview and hire staff, and had three interviews with candidates just this week, she added.

To get 15 students off the waitlist, Kidsborough would need approximately two staff members, Rohwer said – but ideally would hire even more to continue reducing their student-staff ratio (while the state allows a 1:13 ratio, Kidsborough’s goal is 1:8).

Throughout the 7:40 a.m. elementary start time proposal process, “All of our communications with the district have been very positive,” Rohwer said. 

Despite its current Lexington waitlists, she added that Kidsborough could have handled the proposed start time change, and had examples of successful programs in other districts with early start times. Winchester, for instance, has a similar contract with the company and an 8:10 a.m. elementary start time. Lexington pricing would probably be slightly higher than Winchester, Rohwer said, but “if the number of hours doubled, the tuition wouldn’t double,” she emphasized. “We would make sure that it was a fair market rate based on surrounding communities and pricing in other programs.”

Kidsborough is also willing to consider providing before-school care to LPS, something it offers in multiple other programs across its partner districts, Rohwer added.

“There’s definitely an interest, and we would be…fully capable of adding it,” Rohwer said. Adding hours could actually make it easier to hire staff, she added. But “it’s really a district decision.”

Looking ahead

Now that this proposal has been paused, it’s possible that the day-to-day challenges that prompted this proposal in the first place – foremost among them, elementary buses arriving home late – may not get resolved anytime soon.

“I am grateful for the willingness of our administrators to continue to refine the proposal,” Cuthbertson wrote in an email. “Still, I continue to share the concerns that students are arriving to school late and missing valuable time, having difficulties attending to academics later in the day, and spending a significant amount of time on the bus in the afternoon.”

Moving forward, Hackett said that district leadership will be looking to gather more data on several questions raised by community members – including how many elementary students currently leave school early for extracurriculars, how elementary student learning challenges at the end of the school day can best be addressed, and whether modest start time adjustments at the middle and high school level might create possibilities for more manageable changes for all LPS families.

A start time change is not guaranteed in the future, Hackett said. In her Sunday communication, she noted that the issues that prompted the 7:40 a.m. start time change proposal in the first place might resolve themselves to some extent, should present challenges like lingering pandemic effects and construction obstacles improve over time.

Despite deciding to pause the proposal, Hackett described the proposal review and community input components as “an excellent process.”

“We’re very pleased with the input that we got from people,” she said, “and the amount of input specifically – I think it’s pretty impressive to get over 50% of families to respond.”

In the future, she added, “we’re interested in working with the community to figure out what, if any, changes need to be made.”

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