BRIDGEWATER, NJ - While the board of education continues its discussions over earlier school start times for the high school, residents themselves remain divided over the issue that will have different effects on different groupings of students.
The latest chapter in the ongoing saga of school start times that began last year carried on at the board’s Jan. 21 meeting at Bridgewater-Raritan High School.
One item the board attempted to clarify was the idea that it is acting on a 12-percent response from public surveys sent out last year about the start times matter. Local resident Tricia Casamento asked why the percentage is so low.
“It should be much higher,” she said.
Casamento added that she believes the window for discussing and implementing a possible change in start times has been insufficient, and she said she also feels the board would get better feedback with more time.
Board president Jackie Barlow asked if the 12 percent figure was inaccurate, with roughly 1,200 responses received from parents. Superintendent Russell Lazovick said that the faculty and staff response had been much higher.
Board member Ann Marie Mead said she had also brought up concerns about the 12 percent figure.
“It would be good to understand the numbers clearly,” said Mead to applause from the assembly in the high school cafeteria.
She added that she had been talking about parental response, and that, at the end of the day, she still has concerns about changing school starting times.
“The community was not aware we were this close to a decision,” said Mead.
Vice president Jill Gladstone later said the board had been going by student responses from middle and high school students, the two groups that would be most affected by changes in school start times, due to their changing biology and increased sleep needs. Gladstone said that out of 4,200 students in grades seven through 12 in the district, the board had received about 1,274 responses, about 30 percent.
The public was still divided as to whether or not altering school start times is the best course of action for the district.
“I just got on board two weeks ago, to be honest,” said resident Terri Yessman. “I’m still on the fence. I understand the science, but I can’t quite buy into it yet.”
“With all due respect, it’s not a simple decision,” added Martinsville resident Chris McCandless, while Bridgewater resident Gary Bingel later countered that it was “a very simple decision.”
Rochelle Zozula, a certified sleep specialist who said she has studied such matters for 30 years, including pediatrics, thanked Lazovick for accurate data and transparency after he gave a presentation of the timeline of the start times issue. She cautioned that school schedules are “synchronized with these (biological) changes” in older students, which leads to chronic insufficient sleep duration.
Lynn Taylor, a social worker who has three older children in the district, said the primary schools “will be fine,” and that that was not the student population to worry about, in terms of mental health and wellness.
Former district teacher and parent Melissa Parillo said she is in favor of an earlier start time for the primary schools, and that pushing back their start times to 9:30 a.m. or so “will have consequences that have been overlooked,” including less time for unstructured after-school play.
Jessica Levitt, who has spearheaded public efforts to push back school starting times for the benefit of older students since last year, said there had been “attacks” on certain individuals over the previous few weeks, including herself. She said she “has no other motivation, except the health and well-being of students.”
Michelle Baxter, who has children at several grade levels in the district, said she isn’t sure which way she falls on the start times topic, but added that “better parenting” might help with a solution, and that the board also has to “put a plan in place first.”
Special education teacher Cheryl Figliano said the district has been working on the start times matter for almost a year now, and added she is concerned about the level of disorganization.
“(You) want the confidence of the community,” said Figliano. “You need to get it in order and do it in the right frame of mind."
Bridgewater resident Sandy Lowrey said she feels the potential change in start times would be an assault of sorts on athletics and school busing. She talked of how the board wants to “put a stake in the ground” on the matter, in words that Barlow used that night.
“And (it) did,” said Lowrey, who thanked Mead and board trustee Lynne Hurley for their efforts and questions of concern about changing start times.
“I believe there’s a secret plan behind this,” added Lowrey, who felt that the district wouldn’t have athletic fields or school buses available if it pushed back school starting times. “It’s a perfect attack on athletics."
Earlier in the meeting, Stacey Bray, co-president of the Panther Athletic Club, said that “(the district) should not rush into a monumental shift without the (school) board doing its due diligence.”