District considers next steps in evaluating school start time changes

Fayetteville-Manlius School District officials are contemplating the next steps in their consideration of adjusting school start times so that older students start classes later. 

The district has spent the past two years working with Children’s National Health System to explore the potential benefits and challenges associated with changing school start times. Children’s National Health System specializes in a range of pediatric services and research, including sleep as it relates to school start times. 

“The science tells us that it makes sense to move in this direction, but we recognize there would be several challenges to our schools, our students and their families and our greater community,” F-M Superintendent Craig J. Tice said. “While the pandemic has slowed our progress a bit, we are deliberately approaching this methodically so that if we make any changes, they are thoughtful, strategic and well-communicated.”

The consultants identified that a potential change in school start times could impact a number of factors, including parents’ and student’s work schedules, before- or after-school child care, after-school activities and athletics. To gather as much feedback as possible from stakeholders, the consultants conducted 34 interviews and group discussions in spring 2019 with a number of groups, including students, staff, parents and board members. 

During fall 2019, they continued gathering feedback through an online survey. Community forums had been planned for early 2020 but were delayed until fall 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Overall, stakeholders showed interest in adjusting school start times and agreed with the scientific research and benefits to students of doing so, but how to change the start times is where there is no clear consensus, Tice said. 

A final report, which includes a breakdown of stakeholder feedback, was presented to the F-M Board of Education in April 2021. The consultants identified the following next steps for the district to consider. 

  • Conduct a brief study of need and provide alternatives for before and after school childcare and coordinate with community providers, as well as including high school students as younger child caregivers;
  • Determine optimal timing of enrichment programs;
  • Optimize transportation by evaluating utilization, select optimal routing by consider optimal morning double or triple tripping and eliminate wait times prior to first bells for all grades;
  • Optimized timing of free meal programs; and 
  • Develop a communication plan that includes a three- to six-month notification period for implementation of healthy school start times.

Some of this work is already underway as the district has been exploring these topics independent of the school start time study. 

  • The district recently piloted an after-school childcare program at F-M High School in partnership with the YMCA. While it currently is not operating, the blueprint exists for the district and YMCA to move forward with it if there is a need and enough demand, Tice said.
  • As the board of education’s facilities committee evaluates the district’s space needs related to instruction and student services, it is ensuring future capital projects include adequate space for students’ to access healthy meals and for the district’s food service department to efficiently operate. 
  • High school administrators and faculty have been examining the school’s bell schedule to determine if there is a way to modify it so that extracurricular and enrichment activities that traditionally occur after regular school hours could be incorporated into the school day, giving more students access to those activities. Adjusting the schedule could also give more students dedicated lunch times, something many students forgo to instead enroll in an additional elective course. 
  • The transportation department has already completed studies of its bus routes related to the consultant’s proposed start time options and updating routes and/or expanding the bus fleet could be done relatively quickly, Tice said. 

“We will continue to move forward on the projects we already have in the works, such as possibly adjusting the high school master schedule, so that if the time comes that the community and board of education determines that changing school start times is something they want to move forward with, we will have the necessary pieces already in play or in place,” Tice said.

Why consider a change?

Many school districts across the country are investigating changing their school start times so that high school students start classes later. Biological sleep patterns shift toward later times for both sleeping and waking during adolescence, meaning it is natural to not be able to fall asleep before 11 p.m., according to the National Sleep Foundation. And teens need about 8-10 hours of sleep each night to function their best, according to the foundation.

At F-M, the high school officially starts at 7:45 a.m. with some students arriving around 7 a.m. to begin their day. The two middle schools each start at 8 a.m., and the three elementary schools begin at 8:45 a.m., in part because the F-M bus fleet is dispatched in three distinct intervals (high school, middle school and elementary runs).

In 2016, the American Medical Association issued a policy statement that middle and high school start times ought to begin no earlier than 8:30 a.m. in accordance with scientific research.  The F-M High School Site-Based Team, which is made up of parents, teachers, administrators and students, brought the issue to the board of education, asking for a district-wide study related to start times.