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Thursday, October 1 News

Westport parent’s petition against later school start times picks up steam

WESTPORT — Just one day after the Board of Education voted to delay start times by 30 minutes for the upcoming school year, a local elementary school parent has started a petition to reverse the decision. And as of Thursday, she had gathered over 300 signatures.

“This petition is in support of allowing changes for the High School students, based on supporting research, but not to the detriment of Elementary and Middle School students,” the petition states.

Signers of Elena Shmonina’s Change.org petition, which posted Tuesday morning, have left comments expressing concern for the new later dismissals for elementary and middle school students.

As it stands, Staples High School’s daily schedule would run from 8 a.m. to 2:45 p.m.; Saugatuck Elementary School and the middle schools from 8:30 a.m. to 3:15 p.m.; and Coleytown, Greens Farms, Kings Highway, and Long Lots elementary schools from 9 a.m. to 3:45 p.m.

“It’s much more complicated than half an hour,” Shmonina said when reached Thursday, adding she could lose hours of time with her children.

Next week, she said she hopes to reach out to town representatives with the petition.

Several petition signers highlighted the negative impact the time changes could have on working parents, while others said a before-school care option should have been incorporated prior to the vote.

“The burden of before-school care for dual income working households is unfair. The vote should not have passed without the sharing of the detailed plan for before-school care and it’s cost,” wrote parent Betsy Amitin.

A recommendation to delay start times came backed by research that showed adolescents need to sleep later into the morning, regardless of individual bedtimes. The presentation made to the education board in mid-January also outlined a list of mental and physical problems that accompany sleep deprivation.

While some parents question why all dismissals were changed, compared to just the high school, BOE Chair Candice Savin explained Thursday the proposal included fiscal constraints. Modifying start times for a few schools while maintaining others could have hiked transportation costs. Currently, there are no additional bus costs required to carry out the approved plan.

“We have a three-tier busing system,” Savin said. “To get to a two-tier busing system it would cost nearly $1 million.”

The district administration is looking into ways of helping parents, including potential before-school programs.

“You do want to address the needs of working parents,” Savin said, noting the school board has also received a lot of support for the change.

“(Interim Superintendent David Abbey and former Superintendent Colleen Palmer) also both strongly supported this plan because they wanted to do what’s best for the kids,” Savin said.

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The School Start Time Committee that brought the proposal forward was comprised of many stakeholders, including district adminstrators, school board members and parents.

“The research is incredibly clear that there are serious consequences for elementary students as well, if they don’t get enough sleep,” committee member Christine Meiers-Schatz said, adding there had been several meetings with the elementary school PTAs. “I stand behind the work that we did on the committee. It was a thorough committee with lots of different stakeholders, and we met over a long period of time and addressed a lot of different issues.”

Westport’s direction with start times is similar to that of neighboring municipalities, some of which have faced challenges in incorporating the shift.

Last year, Norwalk approved a decision to push back start times for high school students to 8:30 a.m. for the 2020-21 school year The move — estimated to cost the district $457,000 for extra buses — was the subject of debate, as residents voiced concerns on the impact of after-school sports, traffic, extracurricular activities, and families reliant on day care.

For New Canaan schools, a similar proposal is under scrutiny due to major salary increases outlined in the district’s budget. While New Canaan’s school board allotted nearly $954,521 in their $9.8 million budget for the time change, the effect on teachers’ contracts remains unclear.

While potential budgetary implications play out in New Canaan and Norwalk, other towns have shown mixed results.

During a Westport education board meeting on Jan. 13, member Karen Kleine — one of two members who voted in opposition to the change — noted a study showed Wilton students were still showing high levels of stress and anxiety, despite introducing later start times in the early 2000s.

In 2017, over 1,200 Wilton High School students participated in an extensive survey conducted by Suniya S. Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University whose research focuses on vulnerability and resilience among various populations.

The study, which had an 80 to 85 percent participation rate, reported nearly 30 percent of Wilton students experienced “above average” levels of internalizing symptoms, compared to a national norm of 7 percent. Students also showed high levels of anxiety and depression.

“I also spoke to the superintendent in Wilton, and he said very clearly grades didn’t go up,” Kleine said.

Also in 2017, Greenwich moved its school start time from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. for high school students. A Greenwich High School student-led survey in 2019 showed more parents approved of the later start time (48 percent) than educators (33 percent).

While the benefits or ramifications of the time change in Westport schools have yet to be seen, public opinion appears relatively split, with an online poll conducted Tuesday revealing roughly 51 percent of 27 respondents were against the half-hour delay, and 48 percent in favor.

dj.simmons@hearstmediact.com

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