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School Start Time Stakeholder Report

Stakeholder perspectives on potential Fayetteville-Manlius school start time changes

  • Daniel Lewin: Children’s National Health System
  • Emily Fulks, Bonnie Solomon, Deborah Temkin: Child Trends

Introduction

In February 2019, the Fayetteville-Manlius School District (FMSD) School Board approved an initiative to explore the potential benefits and challenges of changing school start times. FMSD contracted with Children’s National Medical Center (CNMC), in partnership with Child Trends (CT), to work with the Fayetteville and Manlius communities to evaluate challenges, opportunities and benefits of implementing healthy school start times. 

The three-part contract involves an assessment of challenges and opportunities; collaboration with the FMSD department of transportation to evaluate costs associated with three to five bell schedule scenarios; and a community survey followed by town hall meetings to discuss results of the evaluation and to educate the community about the rationale for school start time change and solicit community input in an open forum.  

As the first step of this process, in early April 2019, CNMC-CT conducted a series of 34 interviews and group discussions with key stakeholders throughout the community, including: all school board members; the superintendent and assistant superintendents; the directors of transportation, athletics, curriculum development, facilities, finance, personnel and pupil services; the heads of the teachers and bus drivers unions; school principals; parent, sports, and drama groups; and student leaders.

This report summarizes the key themes and issues raised in stakeholder meetings. These findings serve as the basis for recommendations for next steps in the process of evaluating the opportunities and challenges associated with a shift to healthy school start times in FMSD.

Key Themes

The majority of interviewed stakeholders were in favor of the general concept of implementing healthy school start times based on the well-established scientific rationale that has documented negative effects on physical and mental health and academics.  Stakeholders identified a range of opportunities and challenges as well as methods to facilitate school start time change (hereafter referred to as SSTC). The topics and themes raised by stakeholders are detailed in the sections below, listed in order based on the number of times issues were raised by interviewed stakeholders.  This report closes with recommendations for next steps based on the opportunities, challenges and methods raised by stakeholders.

Community Engagement and Communication of the Issue

Stakeholders repeatedly noted that SSTC is a community issue, that it is critical to engage community members in the decision-making process, and that, ultimately, everyone needs to be on board for it to work. Stakeholders emphasized that the goals of community engagement should be building understanding, making people feel valued, and helping to work out the details around how FMSD might implement SSTC.  This first step of meeting with a broad range of stake holders was generally viewed as a positive approach and surveys of the community and town hall meetings (both components of the contract with CNMC/CT) were welcomed.

Stakeholders specifically mentioned the importance of engaging parents (discussed below), students, and teachers in the discussion. Several stakeholders raised the issue of homework, noting it strongly influences how much sleep students get and therefore teachers need to be engaged in the discussion to ensure that their approach to homework is aligned with SSTC. Inclusion of bus drivers in planning was also recommended as they can share specific challenges of managing their routes.  Stakeholders also suggested engaging: local politicians (e.g., Town of Manlius supervisor, both mayors); representatives from BOCES; representatives from local private schools (e.g., Manlius Pebble Hill), who are an important voice in the community and often follow FMSD’s lead; and community members have been vocal in the past on certain issues. One stakeholder noted that members of the broader community, even beyond the district itself, should be engaged during this process because they may have a say in the budget and because community use of school buildings and facilities may be affected by SSTC.

Stakeholders suggested a range of different strategies that may be useful for sharing information about this issue and engaging the community in the process. While a few stakeholders emphasized educating community members about the importance of sleep to support individual-level change – for instance, by sending information home or incorporating conversations about screen time and sleep into health class – strategies for seeking active community input were suggested most frequently. Community forums and town hall discussions were proposed repeatedly, with several specific suggestions: 1) these could be modeled on prior discussions around school safety and security; 2) these should occur in multiple buildings to facilitate participation among diverse groups of community members; and 3) existing “wellness days” could potentially be leveraged for these discussions. Conducting a survey to obtain community feedback was another strategy proposed by multiple stakeholders. Other suggestions included individual meetings with key community members (e.g., representatives from BOCES) and distributing information via the district newsletter and/or school messenger system.

Bussing and Transportation

While almost all FMSD stakeholders mentioned bussing and transportation in some capacity, most concerns fell into two main buckets: general costs and timing/logistics of bus routes. Many voiced concerns about the bus routes with a general impression that bus utilization is very uneven across elementary, middle and high schools.   Double rather than triple tripping (bussing tiers) was raised repeatedly as an option to maximize usage and consolidate routing. Specific concerns included varied start times, including private schools and public schools on the same route, and grouping students of different ages onto the same buses (e.g. including high school and elementary school students on the same bus routes); early high school drop off and waiting times at elementary schools; and several potential safety benefits and concerns including risk to adolescent drivers and elementary school children having pick-up during pre-twilight hours.  While many school principals at all levels confirmed that late buses are not typically a problem for their schools, some did mention concern about weather delays and winter snow removal in school parking lots. The proposed double-tripping method brought up questions about financial costs and availability of drivers to staff the routes. Logistical factors, such as rules requiring the last bus to return to the lot at least eight hours before the first bus goes out for pick-up in the morning, could pose an issue if high school athletic contests are pushed back to later in the evening during the week. Several raised questions about the ability of the transportation staff to use existing tools (i.e.,  routing software) and to creatively conceptualize the most efficient routing options. Other suggestions included practice runs of buses during the routing process, tracking ridership before putting SSTC into effect, and allowing parents to opt out of bussing for their children in order to reduce overall costs.

Student Mental Health

Almost all stakeholders mentioned noticeable exhaustion, stress, and anxiety currently experienced by students, particularly at the high school level. Principals and school board members noted the high demands of daily homework combined with extracurricular activities, athletics, and after-school jobs. Stakeholders repeatedly mentioned that students simply do not feel like there is enough time in the day to complete all of their necessary tasks. While a few stakeholders noted that students seem to be more alert and function at a higher level on days when schools have a two-hour delay start, there were also concerns about high school students losing an hour in the evening, which could in turn put more pressure on students to fit more in after school and/or go to sleep later. Stakeholders stressed the importance of conversations surrounding new strategies to improve mental health, mindfulness, and stress relief for their students. One stakeholder noted that if SSTC has potential to improve mental health and substance abuse generally among students, that could justify the extra costs imposed on families after the change.

Childcare

Stakeholders expressed a variety of concerns surrounding the effects SSTC would have on childcare. As school start times shift, hours of operation for childcare facilities must also shift. Stakeholders raised concerns about bussing children between childcare and school, and parents’ ability to afford the costs of increased hours of childcare. Many families with young children currently rely on their older children to help elementary school students off buses in the afternoons. Earlier elementary school start times will likely result in younger students either arriving home earlier or needing afternoon childcare which would require changes in hours and staffing at existing childcare centers. For this reason, stakeholders were concerned about available slots and extra costs. Additionally, the YMCA in the area employs a large amount of high school students for their after-school childcare programming, and would be unable to do so after SSTC.  Various solutions and opportunities included moving some childcare service centers into FMSD schools, and allowing high school students to earn credit for participating in childcare activities.

Re-visiting the high school’s schedule/Teacher and Staff Contracts

Combining changes in school start times with sweeping changes to academic schedules was a common theme.  Most stakeholders were generally enthusiastic about the idea of re-visiting the high school’s schedule. They noted that the high school day (based on state guidelines) is too short as it stands now, with no lunch period and very little flexibility. Stakeholders felt that re-visiting the high school’s schedule to address reduction of daily homework demands on students. Concerns surrounding re-visiting the high school’s schedule included resistance to changes in instructional time, resistance to changing the classic model of education that has been in place for many years, and the need to re-negotiate teacher and other staff contracts. While high school teachers were thought to be open and in favor of a fundamental change in school schedules, one stakeholder mentioned that re-visiting the high school’s schedule was pitched to teachers at the high school level in the past, and the idea was voted down because teachers considered daily instruction in certain academic subjects to be essential. Most stakeholders, however, expressed that high school teachers are ready for SSTC and are open to changing their instructional approaches. There were very few concerns about teachers’ abilities to adjust to SSTC beyond the potential to re-negotiate contracts if changes in the high school scheduling were to be implemented. However, a few stakeholders did mention that some teachers have children who attend schools outside of the district, which could cause scheduling and transportation challenges for those individuals. Additionally, elimination of home room in high school was suggested.

Athletics

In terms of athletics, stakeholders were largely concerned with transportation to sports contests and practices, scheduling with other districts, and use of athletic facilities.  As the vast majority of sports contests take place in the evening, later high school end times could result in later bus usage and more hours for drivers. Stakeholders were also concerned about some students arriving home from practice or games later, leaving them potentially feeling overly stimulated and therefore unable to go to sleep.  A shift to early morning practices was viewed as an unacceptable solution as it would undermine the purpose and investment in SSTC. There was also concern about sharing athletic facilities in the area among district schools and rec leagues, as well as concern about later games and practices running out of daylight in the fall and winter months, and broad agreement that athletes should not miss instruction time when they have contests.  Challenges of scheduling with other school districts were also voiced (see start times of school districts in the same league as FMSD in Appendix A).  Additionally, for the few varsity sports that depend on external facilities (e.g., swimming pool, bowling alley, golf course), renegotiation of outside contracts would be necessary.  None of these problems were viewed as insurmountable, and centralized and highly efficient scheduling of athletics practices and contests would be managed.  Benefits and opportunities included elimination of the gap between the end of school and the potential for earlier afternoon practices for some sports and more time to clear fields after snow accumulation.

After-school Programming/Extracurriculars

The key takeaway from stakeholders in terms of after-school activities was a need for assurance that there would be no discontinuation or loss of after-school programming and extracurriculars. Potential ideas for compromise included replacing the current high school homeroom hour with an activity period or moving after-school activities to mid-day if block schedules are implemented. As with morning athletics practices, some stakeholders argued that before-school extracurriculars would defeat the purpose of later start times. Others brought up that many after-school activities, particularly in elementary schools, are currently run by parents and shifting the timing may require extra funding at all levels.

Traffic and Road Safety

Many stakeholders representing different schools noted that there is currently very little room for both buses and cars in building parking lots. There was also concern, primarily for younger children, about waiting for morning buses outside in the dark and cold during a few weeks of the year (see civil twilight table in Appendix A). In terms of high school students, stakeholders were concerned about student drivers sharing the road with many cars during rush hour traffic later in the afternoon, especially in bad weather conditions. However, a later start time could mean that students experience better road conditions generally, both to and from school. Many stakeholders also stressed the need for traffic management on Enders Road, which is shared by two schools in the district and does not currently have a traffic light.  Solutions to these issues are closely tied to the transportation department’s reporting on bus utilization and new routing opportunities.

Role of Parents

Stakeholders stressed the importance of parent buy-in to SSTC. Many stakeholders emphasized that, for SSTC to be successful, parents need to be educated about the importance of healthy sleep and related issues so that they can actively encourage healthy sleep habits in their children. It was also noted that parents in FMSD can be quite vocal/demanding; if they don’t understand the importance of the issue they may resist strongly based on fear and lack of understanding. Finally, they will need time to adjust to any scheduling changes, and therefore the earlier they can be brought into the discussion, the better. Some suggested efforts to identify parents who are in strong support of the change, and to work with those parents to help with planning and build buy-in more broadly.

Nearby Districts

The East Syracuse-Minoa (ESM) school district was referenced numerous times by stakeholders as an example of how SSTC has functioned in a nearby community. However, stakeholders noted that ESM had trouble staffing childcare centers without the availability of high school students, as well as difficulty scheduling sports contests against other districts. Webster and Rochester were also mentioned as districts that have implemented SSTC and could serve as examples for FMSD.  Several comments focused on the potential for other area school districts to follow the lead of FMSD, which would result in easing some of the challenges of scheduling athletic contests.

Miscellaneous Considerations

  • Modifications to free and reduced price (FRP) breakfast options
  • Off-campus tutoring centers
  • Students who walk to school
  • Service changes for special needs students

Concluding Summary

Challenges  

The primary challenges identified by stakeholders are shared by all districts contemplating or implementing SSTC, but there are unique features in FMSD: modification of bus schedules, modification of childcare services and costs, modification of sports schedules, and scheduling elementary after-school programs.  If elementary schools are the earliest bussing tier, there may be costs associated with ensuring safety (e.g., following the example of a Rochester district, costs of providing wearable gear with lights so children are visible to buses when pick-up occurs prior to civil twilight). Additional costs may be associated with shifting FRP meals served in school and possible changes to food service in high school to meet potentially high demand during lunch period.  Modification of before and after school childcare services will require assessment of community need, an estimate of costs and adequate notice for both parents and childcare providers to adjust to new schedules.

Opportunities and Solutions

There are potential benefits to concurrent consideration of SSTC and modification of high school schedules—including consideration of block schedules, which have received generally positive feedback from teachers, and the addition of a mid-day activities/lunch period.  Moreover, these considerations fit well within the context of ongoing discussion, among community members and school leadership, about how best to prioritize student mental health and sleep while maintaining the academic and athletic excellence of FMSD and without compromising extracurricular activities.  Stakeholders also perceive SSTC as an opportunity to optimize traffic and bus schedules based on ridership, to increase utilization and minimize early deliveries and wait times.  Challenges associated with child care also present opportunities to develop new child care programs and/or strategies that could benefit high school students (e.g., by bringing programs into FMSD schools and allowing high school students to earn credit for participating in childcare activities).  Finally, proactive plans to engage other area private and public schools in discussions of SSTC could lead to coordinated change, which would mitigate potential challenges related to sports schedules.

Specific action items (FMDS):

A. Approval of proposed bell schedule scenarios to be routed and to generate cost estimates

Guidelines

  • Minimize annual number of days that buses pick up elementary school students prior to civil twilight (see table in Appendix).
  • Minimize wait times in buses outside of schools (< 10 min – routing and school opening issue)
  • Minimize time at school prior to first bell
  • Maintain 1-hour delivery window (Can this be optimized?)

Scenario 1 – Flip-HS: ES – 7:45; HS – 8:30; MS – 8:45

Scenario 2 – Flip-MS: ES – 7:45; MS – 8:30; HS – 8:45

Scenario 3 – Variable Flip:  ES – 7:45-8:00; HS – 8:30; MS – 8:30 and 8:45

Scenario 4 – Tiered flip: ES – 7:45; MS, 5-6th grades – 8:10; MS, 7-8th grades – 8:45; HS, 9-11th grades – 8:30; HS, 12th grade – 9:00

Scenario 5 – Slide: ES – 9:30; MS – 8:45; HS – 8:30

Scenario 6 – Slide flip-HS: ES – 8:00; HS – 8:30; MS – 9:00             

Scenario 7 – Slide Flip-MS ES – 8:00; MS – 8:30; HS – 9:00             

B. Planning for changes in HS block schedule or other curricular changes

C. Convene committee to evaluate child care needs and modifications

Specific action items (CNHS-CT):

A. Coordinate meetings with transportation to start routing

B. Disseminate community survey

C. Town Hall meetings: SSTC rationale, scenarios and costs (transportation; childcare); community survey results

D. Final report