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Lower Merion wants elementary school students to start earlier, and high schoolers to arrive later. Some parents aren’t happy.

As the trend of later school start times for teenagers gains steam, some parents say Lower Merion is prioritizing older students at the expense of its youngest.

Lower Merion parents attend a listening session about proposed changes to school start times at Harriton High School in Rosemont on Dec. 9.
Lower Merion parents attend a listening session about proposed changes to school start times at Harriton High School in Rosemont on Dec. 9.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

As a child psychologist, Lisa Schwartz supports the science-backed trend of starting the school day later for middle and high school students. She sees it as a “life-and-death” issue.

But as a parent of first and fourth graders, Schwartz understands concerns about the steps the Lower Merion School District would take to accommodate the switch. It wants to bump up the start of the elementary school day by 75 minutes, from 9 a.m. to 7:45.

In addition to having to wake children earlier, Schwartz thinks parents may have an even harder time finding child care if the school day ends at 2:35 p.m., as Lower Merion is proposing.

She is among a chorus of elementary parents raising questions about the Main Line district’s plan to reorder its school start times.

Lower Merion has been discussing the potential changes for years, and within weeks administrators are expected to present an update to the school board that will lay the groundwork for a vote early next year. Yet the latest plan is prompting some parents to demand the district come up with another option — including during listening sessions that took place last week.

The controversy follows moves by districts around the country to better align student schedules to what research shows is healthiest for young people.

As children enter puberty, experts say, their sleep cycles begin to shift, with them staying up later at night and struggling to wake earlier. The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association, and American Academy of Sleep Medicine have all recommended that middle and high schools start after 8:30, noting sleep deprivation is linked to mental health problems and increased risk of car accidents, among other harmful effects.

California became the first state to order later school start times, passing a law in October that will require high schools to begin no earlier than 8:30, and middle schools, 8 a.m. To accommodate such switches, some large districts have moved their elementary school start earlier each day. In Seattle, most younger students arrive by 7:55; in St. Paul, Minn., it’s 7:30.

Changes have also bubbled across the Philadelphia region. In Radnor, high school now starts at 8:30, pushed back from 7:35 last year. Tredyffrin/Easttown also delayed start times this year, pushing high school to 7:50 and middle school to 8:27. Unionville-Chadds Ford was the first area district to switch, pushing high school to 8 a.m. in fall 2017.

» READ MORE: Two more districts hit the snooze button on school start times

Lower Merion’s plan would shift all upper grades in line with the medical recommendations, pushing the high school start to 8:25 and middle school to 9:05.

But such changes involve a complex web of factors that go into realigning school schedules. Among the biggest challenges is transportation, one exacerbated in Pennsylvania.

Any district here that provides busing for its students is required to offer transportation for students living within its boundaries who attend private and charter schools — up to 10 miles beyond the borders.

“For a lot of the bigger districts in the state, [changing start times] is more complicated,” said West Chester School District Superintendent Jim Scanlon. West Chester buses students to more than 160 schools, including in Delaware. Lower Merion buses to more than 130.

In an email to parents this month, Scanlon cited transportation costs as “a significant barrier" to the district’s moving ahead on a plan to change start times, potentially requiring voters to approve a tax increase above the state-imposed limit. A task force will meet in January and consider other options before taking a report to the district’s school board in March.

In Lower Merion, the district uses a “three-tier” busing system — meaning elementary, middle, and high schools all start at different times — so shifting one start time affects the others. Each needs to be spaced out adequately for buses to complete their routes.

Or the district would need to expand its fleet. In Lower Merion’s case, officials say it would cost $4.5 million for 53 extra buses. But the district doesn’t have space to park that many buses, and it says it would be difficult to hire drivers, saying it’s already down 13 amid a national school bus driver shortage.

» READ MORE: School bus driver shortage squeezes districts around the region

Instead, the committee evaluating options endorsed starting elementary schools first — though the prospect of children waiting in the dark prompted it to push back the proposed start time from 7:30 to 7:45. Officials say no student would be picked up before 7.

(West Chester didn’t consider flipping start times so elementary students begin first, Scanlon said, but “that may be the only way we can afford it.”)

But many Lower Merion elementary parents still object. “7:45 is, like, brutally early,” said Leslie Doyle of Wynnewood, who has a daughter in fourth grade and a preschooler two years from first grade.

Younger children need more sleep than teenagers. “When you’re looking at what pediatricians recommend — that’s like having my kid in bed at 7 o’clock,” Doyle said. Proponents of Lower Merion’s plan say younger children naturally wake up earlier and are better prepared to learn earlier in the morning.

» READ MORE: Later school start times could address ‘crisis’ of sleep-deprived teens, Pa. report finds

Still, a petition circulating online asks Lower Merion to revisit its proposal, saying the current plan “simply shifts sleep deprivation from the high schoolers to the elementary school children.”

“We are alarmed at what appears to be a complete lack of foresight with respect to what the earlier start times will do to elementary kids and the legacy of damage that it will cause,” it reads. Parents say they plan to present the petition to the Lower Merion School Board on Monday night.

A final listening session is planned for Tuesday night.

So far, the district has received more than 200 emails about the plan. Concerns include the impact on middle and high school extracurricular activities and on teachers’ families, said spokesperson Amy Buckman.

“In addition, there is significant support for the proposal for the health and welfare of adolescent students,” Buckman said.

The board could ask the district next month to consider more options. A vote is planned for spring.

At last Monday night’s listening session, parents questioned whether the district had sufficiently vetted transportation options. One man said he “just did a quick Google” search and recited costs for vans as opposed to buses. Other parents told the district to buy more buses — saying they would pay higher taxes.

Parents who have been pushing for later start times for the upper grades have been urging parents of younger children to think beyond elementary school.

Schwartz, the elementary parent, says she will support Lower Merion’s plan “if it is the only option.”

Some parents “do not realize the horror” of what lies ahead with sleep-deprived teenagers, said Amy Norr, who has been advocating for years for Lower Merion to change its start times.

When Norr’s children were in elementary school, “7:45 would have been very hard for us," she said. “But seeing what they went through in high school was awful. You don’t do that to your worst enemy.”

Correction: This story has been updated to more precisely describe Lisa Schwartz’s position on the issue.