Lower Merion school officials are recommending that the district delay changes to next year’s schedule after a plan to start elementary school earlier each day, so older students could sleep later, drew significant community opposition.
At a meeting Monday night, parents expressed frustration that after years of discussion, the district was delaying the prospect of a later high school starting time. Lower Merion is the latest local district to consider a growing movement across the country to push back start times to let older students get more sleep.
While the Lower Merion school board is still expected to vote on the proposal this spring, district officials say they don’t believe any change should be implemented this fall.
They are also considering a new proposal that would start middle school first, followed by high school and elementary. “I recognize this does not necessarily fall in line with the science, but I do see the complications” with the current proposal, Superintendent Robert Copeland said.
The district in October recommended reordering schedules for later starts each day at the middle and high schools, in line with guidance from the American Medical Association and other organizations that classes for students in those grades not begin before 8:30 a.m. Under the proposal, the school day at Lower Merion’s two high schools, which currently begins at 7:30, would be pushed back to 8:25, and middle school — now an 8:15 start — to 9:05.
Elementary school, meanwhile, would be bumped up from 9 to 7:45 a.m. District officials say start and end times for the three school levels must be adequately spaced for bus drivers to complete their runs.
But many parents of younger children objected, saying the earlier elementary start would shortchange their children on sleep and create child-care hurdles, among other issues.
The district also heard concerns that shifting middle school later, with a dismissal time of 4:05 p.m., would interfere with after-school activities.
Kathy Blackburn, executive vice president of TregoED, a consulting firm hired by the district, on Monday identified 37 risks associated with the proposed schedule, ranging from elementary students walking to bus stops in the dark to middle and high school students missing instructional time to leave school early for away games.
An “implementation team” of district staff members brainstormed ideas to address some of the risks, like giving reflectors to all elementary students or sitting three students in a bus seat to deal with limited availability of bus drivers.
It recommended that the district not implement the new schedule this fall, Blackburn said, and instead continue to evaluate the risks, as well as conduct “a risk analysis of not making a change.”
That recommendation upset parents — and students — who for years have been hoping for a change to high school start times.
“Lower Merion students are suffering,” said Sydney Halpern, a junior at Lower Merion High School, who told the board she was “exhausted.” Halpern said her frustration was shared by more than 20 other students.
In response to the complaint that switching schedules to start elementary school first would shift the burden of sleep deprivation onto younger students, Noah Salmanson, a Harriton High School senior, said, “What makes it OK” to keep the burden on high schoolers?
“Let me tell you, high school is a crazy time,” he said, with students trying “to max out” Advanced Placement classes and juggling after-school activities.
Some parents warned that a proposal to start middle school earlier would rile families of those students, generating opposition from another group. “It seems the question we have asked is: Who are we going to push under the bus?” said parent Rebecca Rendell.
Board President Melissa Gilbert said she understood the frustration, but told parents Copeland and administrators were being “as thorough as possible.”
“We are all extremely concerned about our children,” Gilbert said. But “I am hopeful that we’re going to be able to figure this out and do this right.”
Transportation requirements — complicated by a national shortage of school bus drivers — have posed a significant headache in the debate. District officials are considering a contract with Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which used artificial intelligence to optimize bus efficiency for Boston schools, though Copeland said the district had questions about that work.
Copeland said the district planned to conduct a survey in February that included the earlier middle school start among the possible options.