BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The Bridgewater-Raritan board of education took some steps toward possibly changing school start times in the district – but an actual final decision still seems to be a ways off.

The board passed a pair of draft resolutions Jan. 21, the first of which identifies the issue as one concerning health and mental wellness for the district’s middle and high school students, while also seeking to achieve a balance for students at the intermediate and primary school levels.        

Board president Jackie Barlow spoke several times of “putting a stake in the ground” regarding school start times, although she added that could be changed with the removal of said stake.

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“Do we consider this a major health concern?” asked Barlow, before the resolutions were read and discussed at length.                                                                                                   

It was mentioned that the Center for Disease Control, the American Health Association, the American Association of Pediatrics and several other major health associations have stated that adolescent sleep amounts are a major health concern, and that due to the circadian rhythms of developing teenagers, they need eight to 10 hours of sleep per night.

Board member Lynne Hurley questioned the purpose of passing the resolutions, and said she wondered why they were even needed. Barlow replied that the board is investing a lot of attention on the changing start times and student sleep issue, and that it is either an important issue the board should continue to work on, or else they should allow Superintendent Russell Lazovick to concentrate on other matters in the district.

Board member Ann Marie Mead said she didn’t think it was that simple of a matter, and that she couldn’t support that.

Board vice president Jill Gladstone said the resolutions show the board’s commitment to getting the matter done, and is a statement of why the board is going through the proceedings it has on the issue, including a public forum with specialists that was held in October.

“I believe the science,” said Gladstone, a familiar refrain for a number of members of the public who spoke on the matter that evening.

Hurley said that with the way the resolutions are worded, she didn’t believe she could vote “yes” on them. She also expressed concerns earlier on that, like the public, she had not been aware that the board was supposedly close to making a decision. 

“I’m uncomfortable with the resolutions,” she said. “I need more time.”

Board member Barry Walker had earlier refuted a 2015 article that Hurley had mentioned, by University of California-Davis researchers, that there is insufficient scientific evidence that later start times would help older students, and called it “an opinion piece.”

Lazovick said, as he had done in December, the discussions are not about bringing the public to one side of the issue or the other. He said he doesn’t think the objective is achievable for the 2020-2021 school year, not with the limited number of bus drivers available to the district.

“I’m looking for direction,” he told the board, while also mentioning holding meetings with more stakeholders such as the Panther Athletic Club. “We’re just getting going. It has to be done right.”

Board member Melanie Thiesse said she feels the start times matter should be done in committee, by studying graphs, data and other schedules, as opposed to using the full board as has been the way until now.

Board member Zachary Malek said he doesn’t think the board should be voting on the resolutions, in that a possible change in start times is not being done in support of the district’s younger students, just their older counterparts. He also expressed concerns about how special education students and their families will be affected if a start time change goes through.

“I don’t see how the resolution hurts anything,” responded Barlow.

Malek said he would like to see developmental science factored in, while Barlow said a potential move to later start times would balance the needs of all students, including those in the primary and intermediate grade levels, with later stating times for middle and high school students. The actual plan itself is yet to be determined, along with the actual school year that such a change might be implemented.

“I’m having a hard time agreeing with this,” answered Mead, who added she is opposed to implementing a start time change this upcoming fall, without all the requisite information.

“I’m not concerned it’s a critical medical issue,” added Mead. “For some, but not every one. I can’t support these.”

Walker said demographic and transportation studies have been done with regard to altered start times, and he also said the board has to move forward.

“We need to put a date to this eventually,” he said. “We can’t keep kicking the can down the road. We need to do something.”

Mead spoke of forming a committee, composed of board members and other concerned individuals, to study the situation, as opposed to passing a resolution.

The first resolution passed by a 6-2-1 count, with Hurley and Mead voting against it, and Malek abstaining.

The second resolution was similar to the first, in that moving the district’s older students to later school starting times will lead to improved mental and physical health, safety and climate, while a balance will also be provided to the younger grades. It also called for the establishment of a citizen advisory committee to study the start times issue, with the district’s Health and Wellness action team to continue its own work.

Thiesse added it is good for the community to know what the board’s plans are, particularly by not implementing any start time change in a dedicated year. Malek said he prefers a start time of 8 a.m. or later, while Walker said the recommended start time is 8:30 a.m. – and Mead added she is still deliberating with regard to the science on the issue.

Walker inquired about the “drop dead date” to change the start times for the 2020-2021 school year, and Gladstone said a plan would have to be developed by the end of June 2020. Barlow said the community needs more time to implement changes in its own schedules, such as for child aftercare.

“I think we need a full 12 months,” offered Gladstone, who then mentioned the period between June and the end of August this calendar year as the right time for the final plan to be presented to the board to be ready for the following year.

Lazovick said that how to afford the plan is just as important, especially with certain transportation options that the district might not be able to pay for, and would necessitate asking the public for money. He also said the board should set an aggressive timeline and keep moving forward, while not handcuffing itself to a specific timeline.

Lazovick also said that other districts in the county are looking at changing their start times for the 2021-2022 school year, as next year is believed to be too fast. He told the board to be flexible with its language in the resolution, and that he wouldn’t recommend the summer, just in case things don’t work out.

“You can move the timeline,” he said.

Barlow said June would be better, as most of the public will not yet be on vacation, while Joshi said the conversation could continue past June. Lazovick added that other districts might not be ready by June.

“The board is not taking anything off the table by doing this,” he said of the resolution.

Mead said the district might have to go to a referendum, when looking at the costs. Gladstone said the notion of an advisory committee should keep going, involving four board members and three or four supervisors or principals, with policy dictating that the board president be the one to make selections.

Barlow said it is important to have the players mentioned at the table for “each side of the equation.”

“The community would benefit from those conversations as well,” said Mead.

Barlow said it is also about finding the right number of individuals, as “50 people in a room” is not going to work. The advisory committee recommendations on start times will be forwarded to the board in June.

The resolution passed by a 7-1-1 margin, with Mead voting against it and Hurley abstaining. Hurley added that, in the future, she would like to be able to “sleep” on resolutions until the following board meeting, as she did not like to abstain from a vote.