RENO, Nev. — Changing bell times to address both student sleep patterns and school bus driver shortages, and the accompanying difficulties of each, was the topic of a popular session at the 2021 STN EXPO Reno.
Facilitator Ryan Hahn, president of Strategic Schools Consultants and a former transportation director, explained on Dec. 7 the subtleties, politics and protocols involved, with an emphasis on the history behind bell times and politics involved in changing them.
Hahn referred to Senate Bill 328 in California, which prevents school districts from starting classes before 8 a.m. for middle schoolers and before 8:30 a.m. for high school students beginning July 1. Hahn acknowledged the difficulty involved in the process when school districts do this on their own because of the ripple effect it has on a community.
“When you do not have the legislature behind you, this could get very contentious,” Hahn told the attendees. “The bell time conundrum not only has to do with your school but with just about every business in your town or city. When I gave a virtual presentation last month to a school district in California, guess who was on that call? The mayor, the supervisors and the big business owners in town.”
Hahn relayed that school start times may require businesses to adapt operations to conform with new times. “You may think that you’re only getting kids to school on time and that is part of it,” Hahn advised. “But there are a whole lot of people that rely on the school bus taking their kids off their hands in the morning so they can get to work.”
And the California law’s impact on children, especially elementary students, is a major concern in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District in Watsonville, California. Kathryn Powell, the transportation director, said the district runs a three-tier schedule that transports elementary students before and after middle school students and high schoolers, who ride together.
Powell, who said the district is busy developing its fall schedule, added that the state law received mixed reviews in her district because the younger students would have to get up 30 to 45 minutes earlier.
“Because of the change we have to flip flop our schedule and now our elementary students have to come in really early. How is that servicing them?” Powell asked. “And having our littlest students get up early and be on the bus early in the morning and get to school early in the morning so that our older students can sleep in, what ramifications is that going to have? I think that’s a big unknown. The impact on our littlest students remains to be seen.”
Powell said that despite the driver shortage, her department doesn’t want to create a situation where more routes are needed. “We want to create a situation where we maintain the number of routes that we have or even decrease them,” she said. “So, we have to keep that in mind when we are creating a bell schedule so we can use the resources we have to service the same number of schools and the same number of students within the same number of routes, but at different times.”
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Jose Cruz, the transportation supervisor at the Downey Unified School District about 13 miles south of Los Angeles, said his staff is doing all they can to prepare for when the law takes effect, but no decision has been made at this writing whether to start the high schools at 8:30 a.m. or 9 a.m. “The middle schoolers will have only 10 minutes difference because most middle schoolers are at a 7:50 a.m. starting time,” Cruz said. “Nothing is set in stone at this point.”
Cruz noted that of the 22,000 students in the district, he transports about 500 special needs students door-to-door and to different schools or programs during the school day, depending on their individualized education program.
He reported he has yet to hear anything negative about the new law and the only question is what the board and superintendent will decide. “We have six routes for middle school and seven routes for high school so they will be the only ones affected by this,” Cruz said. “We only transport special needs and some elementary students who live more than a mile from school. So, depending on the time they choose, I will need a couple more drivers or none.”
Cruz said the start times for his elementary students will not change, adding that the district is not experiencing a driver shortage because only about eighty percent of the students who ride the buses are back in school.
Pajaro Valley USD’s Powell said while there is little impact on Pajaro’s middle schoolers, having to shift start times for high school thirty to forty-five minutes later will affect the afternoon times for after-school activities.
“We are figuring on publicizing that information so we can work through all the questions and concerns that will be posed because it will have an impact on the after-school programs that we run as well as our after-school athletics that we have going on with practices,” Powell explained. “Sometimes schools don’t want them to practice in the dark, but now with the time change they will be getting out of school later and they will be practicing in the dark. Especially football.”
Read more about changing bell times in the January 2022 edition of School Transportation News magazine.