Published April 22, 2021
By MAUREEN DOHERTY
NORTH READING — Major changes to the start time and end time at the elementary, middle and high school levels in the town’s five schools will be introduced starting next fall.
The School Committee unanimously approved the final recommendations made by Superintendent of Schools Dr. Patrick Daly at the committee’s meeting last Thursday night.
The new start times approved by the committee are:
• Elementary Schools: 8 a.m. – 2:15 p.m.
• Middle and High School: 8:30 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Since 2018, changes to the school start times have been studied by an advisory committee comprised of administrators, educators, staff, parents and community members, but initial exploration into the science of sleep – and the specific needs of adolescent brains – has been a topic of discussion in the district far back as 2006 and was revisited in 2015-2016.
Leading up to the final decision, parents, families, faculty and staff were invited to participate in virtual listening forums and online surveys to voice their concerns and preferences earlier this month. They were given with three potential scenarios for changed the start times.
Armed with this feedback and confident in the science-based studies on the positive outcomes for improved learning ability for teenagers who sleep later in the morning, the district administration feels ready to take the plunge.
COVID-19 protocols and the hybrid learning schedule enacted for this year also provided nearly a year’s worth of real time data for students, families and educators in the local schools. During the current school year, the high school day runs from 8:30 a.m. to 2:40 p.m.; the middle school day runs from 8:55 a.m. to 3:05 p.m.; the Hood and Little Schools – as the “late” elementary schools – run from 8:05 a.m. to 2:20 p.m. while the Batchelder School – as the “early” elementary school – runs from 7:45 a.m. to 2 p.m.
In general, the high school feedback has been positive for the later start, but the continuation of splitting the start times of the three elementary schools remains problematic and the 7:45 a.m. start was considered too early by many, while the middle school students were getting out quite late, complicating their participation in after-school activities.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Patrick Daly acknowledged the many hurdles and challenges that have to be overcome, as pointed out by many parents, including child care and the inability to have older siblings available to care for younger siblings, and younger students getting a late start on their homework.
A function of the split start times at the elementary level is also directly related to the number of buses the town currently runs each day coupled with the desire to run separate buses for each level — elementary, middle and high school.
However, they ultimately concluded that if the start times for both middle and high school were aligned and an additional two buses were added to the district’s fleet (at a cost of $130,000) several positive objectives could be achieved. Among them, the ability to start the three elementary schools at the same time and the ability to offer two “late” buses for middle and high school students who previously were unable to stay late after school for extra help or extracurricular activities because they did not have transportation home.
“We can’t change everything with two additional buses but it will help those 200 additional students we thought may not be able to take the bus to continue,” Daly said.
Daly added the need for a late afternoon bus has been discussed since he was a middle school assistant principal here. “It will allow students to get very close to their homes,” he said, though not to their exact morning bus stop due to the length of the runs. For parents still concerned with sixth graders sharing a bus with high schoolers, he said they will keep the younger kids up front and added that many of the bus routes would include sets of older and younger siblings while the majority of juniors and seniors do not take the bus.
“We certainly spent a lot of time on the science behind preserving the 8:30 a.m. start time for high school. We also want to keep the elementary time at 8 a.m.,” Daly said. Although some feedback requested an 8:15 a.m. start for high school to enable them to be dismissed by 2:45 p.m., he explained that could not be done without requiring a 7:45 a.m. start for elementary school, which “we got a lot of feedback was too early.”
“We’re used to getting out at 2 p.m.; we are now going to have to get out at 3 p.m.,” he said, noting that all the feedback they received from members of Middlesex League schools, which instituted the late start times several years ago, was all positive.
“I think this is a really positive thing for our community. I think those concerns are valid and I have heard them from our coaches, some parents and some teachers, and those are challenges we as a team, are going to continue to work through,” Daly said.
“We need to educate our community. We need to inform parents how important it is to make sure now that kids are getting the later start times are getting to sleep, and sleeping later, and not going to bed with their screens or not staying up to 3 a.m. playing video games, and all the other components of a healthy lifestyle. A foundation of a good night’s sleep sets us up for so many other successes,” Daly believes.
School Committee member Rich McGowan thanked Dr. Daly for his leadership on the start time issue. “He has been passionate about this…We really did our research,” McGowan said, adding as he learned about the topic he became “more convinced that this was something we needed to do for the kids and the challenges were something that we could overcome.”
The North Reading School Start Times Committee members are: parent/community members: Alissa Fishman, David Miller, Samantha Miller, Kerry Reddington, Debbie Sharp and Sheela Sethuraman; North Reading School Committee: Richard McGowan and Dyana Boutwell; North Reading Public Schools: Nicole Pierce, (NRHS teacher as well as a parent); Michael Connelly, Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Operations; Sean Killeen, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning; and Patrick Daly, Superintendent.
Documents and background material used in evaluating these changes are available on its website for review by the public at: https://sites.google.com/nrpsk12.org/schoolstarttimes/home.