On Monday night, Montgomery County Public Schools officials heard from parents, students and school staff in the third forum on proposed changes to school start and end times that would make high school start times later and extend elementary school days by 30 minutes.
There is one more public forum on the topic scheduled for Feb. 10 at Montgomery Blair High School, at 51 University Blvd. in Silver Spring.
The cafeteria at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown was full of community members eager to support or oppose the plans. Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr made the recommendations largely based on teens’ need for sleep and findings by a Montgomery County Public Schools working group on bell times that showed high school students could benefit from later start times.
The recommendations are to push back high school bell times by 50 minutes, with the school day beginning at 8:15 a.m., instead of 7:25 a.m. Middle schools would start ten minutes earlier at 7:45 a.m., and elementary schools would start at the same times (8:50 a.m. or 9:15 a.m.), but run 30 minutes longer (ending at 3:35 p.m. or 4 p.m.).
Most opponents expressed concerns over days being too long for elementary school students, and high school students’ days ending too late.
Parents Erik and Claudia Phelps, whose son is in 10th grade, insisted, “the bottom line is teenagers need more sleep.” Evidence from the working group supports their belief that most teenagers have a difficult time falling asleep before 11 p.m.
The group’s report cited studies showing how lack of sleep negatively impacts learning, attentiveness, motivation, mood and physical and mental health. While studies suggest teens need 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep, most get an average of 7.6 hours each night nationwide.
Several high school students at the forum said that later start times wouldn’t mean more sleep, but rather that students will just stay up later. Excessive homework and overpacked schedules seemed to be the real source of sleep deprivation.
Maria Garcia, a high school English as a Second Language counselor, said she works with many students from immigrant families who work at night with their families. She thinks the time change could help them graduate.
“It’s a miracle they’re in school, but they’re very tired,” she said.
In a survey by the school system’s working group, 69 percent of high school students and parents said they would prefer that school start later.
For elementary school, parents and staff said they didn’t think young children could manage an extra 30 minutes in their day. Some said children could get home as late as 5 p.m. on the bus if school lets out at 4 p.m., and by then it is dark in the winter.
Lake Seneca Elementary School Counselor Jennifer Jones said later dismissal times would cut into teachers’ time at the end of the day to meet and collaborate. And staying at school later would make it difficult for the many teachers who go to second jobs in the evening.
“They’re so worried about the teenagers’ sleep to the neglect of the elementary school students’ needs,” Jones said.