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Thursday, February 27 News

Westport delays school start times by 30 minutes

WESTPORT — Despite concerns from the elementary school parents and teachers, later start times are coming to the district next year.

The Board of Education voted 5-2 on Monday to have all Westport schools begin 30 minutes later for the 2020-21 school year, with members Karen Kleine and Elaine Whitney against the proposal in hopes of providing the administration more time to implement the plan.

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“My strong preference is to hold off,” Whitney said, noting she still supported the proposal. “I think with three or four extra weeks we could have something laid out that’s a plan we could be confident could be implemented, to do some before school coverage for those families that might need it.”

The decision will have Staples High School’s daily schedule 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.

But not everyone was on board with the plan, particularly parents and educators of younger students, who spoke out against the change.

“Overwhelmingly, the major concerns that we have heard center around how this current recommendation could affect our younger learners,” said Karen Defelice, of the Westport Education Association. Moving a rigorous school day to even later in the afternoon left many elementary-level educators very concerned, she said.

Parents criticized the need to shift their schedules to align with the time change, while others alleged the board’s School Start Time Committee — which worked on the proposal for two years — did not fairly represent elementary-level parents in the conversation.

“I implore the board to push back start times until we can come together as a community, not a committee, and find a solution that works best for all our children,” said Elizabeth Coe, a Westport parent, noting the conversation had gotten divisive.

Coe argued the change could further create a hurdle for parents to find babysitters for their children, adding early school programs could be seen as punishment for kids of working parents.

“I do not get a lot of time with my kids. The 30 minutes before school every day, I have breakfast with them, I get to talk to them and put them on the bus,” she said. “You take this away, I lose that time.”

To address these concerns, the education board floated the idea of implementing a before-school program, and agreed the elementary school day as a whole may need to be reviewed.

While no educator spoke in favor of the time change at the meeting, several parents and officials voiced support.

Selectwoman Melissa Kane said she was tepidly in favor of the start time changes, but maintained the discussion should be an ongoing process.

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“It would be great to have a start time committee in place to look at the successes and unintended consequences, and perhaps lessons learned, as we move forward with any change to our start time,” Kane said.

But Kleine, who voted against the proposal, said she didn’t believe the current start time was harmful to students.

“The kids are doing well. We’re the No. 1 district in the state,” Kleine said.

School board and School Start Time Committee member Vik Muktavaram, meanwhile, assured the decision was not made in haste. Admitting his initial opposition, he said the committee took over two years to research and bring forward a proposal.

“All change is going to be hard,” Muktavaram said. “It is going to be a burden for our families, but ultimately I think we have to make the right decision for the students.”

dj.simmons@hearstmediact.com

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