BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The notion of possibly changing school starting times in the Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District is still proving to be somewhat of a challenge, but board members recognize that it probably cannot be resolved for September.
Member of the board of education debated the topic for more than 90 minutes at the annual reorganization meeting, following more than an hour of public comment on the subject.
“I’m losing a lot of sleep over this,” said member Lynne Hurley.” “It’s eating at me.”
She said she is not opposed to having later school starting times, but added that “a decision can’t be made in haste,” with discussions starting last May.
“I don’t want to rush this through an accelerated timeline,” she said.
Board member Zachary Malek said later starting times could put a greater financial burden on families in the district, which he called “ridiculous.” He also mentioned “unbearable” climate conditions in local classrooms, particularly during the hotter months of the school year, which he said would make it difficult for students to learn.
Malek also mentioned cutting as much time from school bus routes as possible, and that changing school starting times would also impact students at the Somerset County Vocational & Technical High School.
“I don’t think voting on this at the next January meeting is the right decision,” said Malek.
Board member Ann Marie Mead said she has studied the start times matter at length over the last several weeks and months.
“I struggle with this discussion,” she said. “This is very important.”
She asked what the problem is that the board is trying to solve, and whether its changes would be affective.
“It’s a national trend,” said Mead of changing school start times, “but school boards are local.”
Mead said she is also unsure how many individuals in the community really want starting times to change, and said that the introduction of a board committee specifically designed to address school start times has never materialized.
“It’s now pretty much the only thing we’re thinking about, and it’s dividing this community,” she said.
Mead said she questioned the results of a board survey concerning changing start times, with only 12 percent of those surveyed responding. She also mentioned she had voted against the last school budget, that she wouldn’t do things piecemeal and that changes would cost money.
Board member Steven Singer spoke of reports from the CDC and other medical associations, regarding the fact that school districts could support adequate sleep for students with later starting times, and that more sleep equals more intense brainwave activity.
“I’m convinced by the science out there,” he said, a familiar refrain for many who spoke publicly that evening, “but I’m not against more intense scrutiny of what we’re going to do moving forward.”
Mead said the board hasn’t even discussed the actual starting times, while Singer said he believes moving them 30 to 40 minutes would help. He also said he was fine with obtaining more information.
Malek reiterated that families and family life would be impacted by changes. He said he wants to look into the changes, and Singer replied that that is why districts hire superintendents and assistant superintendents, to come up with solutions.
“We’re not in a position to vote (on this),” said Malek.
“I’m not saying we are,” Singer added.
Mead said she wouldn’t vote now to implement changes in starting times for September, while board member A.J. Joshi said the board has already been discussing the matter for six to seven months.
“Science says sleep is imperative,” said Joshi.
He also said the board should act as leaders in the county, and not wait until it has to follow along with other districts. He added that changing start times in Bridgewater-Raritan would improve what is already a high-performing school district.
“Fact are facts, science is science,” said Joshi.
Hurley said she disagrees, and remarked that Bridgewater is “the biggest fish in the transportation pond,” with school buses scheduling themselves around the Bridgewater district. She said she hadn’t liked the transportation options that were discussed in late 2019, and thought the board would have hired a transportation consultant.
Board member Barry Walker said that each district is in its own position, with its own strengths, weaknesses and challenges.
“They’ll make a decision based on what’s best for them,” he said of those other districts.
Walker also said that Bridgewater-Raritan athletics personnel would have to have conversations with those other school districts, as some schools don’t have lighted fields for nighttime competition.
In response to a question by Malek, who also expressed concern about the effects of start time changes on special education students, Superintendent Russell Lazovick said that if the high school starting time was pushed back to 8 a.m., there would be no significant impact on athletics or on Vo-tech students, the latter of whom currently start their days at 7:45 a.m.
“There’s no one solution for any of these plans,” said Lazovick, who added the objective is to follow the medical advice that has been given regarding later starting times.
Lazovick said that if the board decides it is significant enough to make a change in start times for the 2020-2021 school year, then transportation Options 2 and 3, which were presented at a board meeting last month, are the best choices. Those options would require 12 to 24 additional buses, at a cost of almost $50,000 per bus.
Lazovick also said that he does not recommend option five at this point. That was one of the least expensive possibilities presented, but one where high school students would not be out of class until almost 3:30 p.m. Lazovick said that option would be “incredibly intrusive” on school staff, and would also “wreak havoc” on afterschool activities.
The superintendent said he believes administrators have moved forward with all due speed, with the potential change in start times actually a health issue, and a goal set by the board.
“It is a big decision,” he said, with many conversations continuing.
Lazovick said that every school district is completely different, and that many others are waiting to see what Bridgewater-Raritan does regarding a change in start times. He also reiterated that local students could very well get bogged down in rush hour traffic, particularly on major state highways, in traveling to away athletic and extracurricular competitions if school start times are pushed back.
Lazovick said he also thinks September might be “too quick” to implement changes.
Board member Melanie Thiesse said the board could potentially delay the start time issue for another decade, and said the chief priority is the health and wellness of the district’s students, plus their academic performances.
“In my mind, it’s an easy decision to make,” said Thiesse, who added she would vote for the change if it came up.
Board vice president Jill Gladstone agreed that start times are a health issue, and “not just a fad.” She said she liked Option 3, which starts the high school day at 8:05 a.m., but felt that perhaps students might be overly involved in activities, even with the school board having made provisions to cut back on homework amounts.
That option requires a total payment of about $594,000 with 12 single routes that allow for putting the high school on the same tier as the primary schools for busing.
“We’re one of the earliest schools (starting) now,” Gladstone said.
Hurley said she is concerned about where funds would be coming from, and where they would be taken from, if start times were changed.
“We need to have a financial discussion,” said Hurley. “A serious one.”
Lazovick said the impact of altered starting times on individual families couldn’t be predicted, and added that anything other than Option 5 would impact busing. He also reiterated a concern he had brought up about the district not being able to find an adequate supply of bus drivers, as drivers who are now aging out are not being replaced.
Mead said she isn’t convinced that school start times is a health issue, and felt there are other ways to address mental health issues rather than changing start times. She also said she had always heard of an 8:30 a.m. start time, and wondered why they would stop there.
“I don’t think this will solve kids’ mental health issues,” agreed Malek.
He also said he doesn't know if students will get all the benefits with later starting times.
“There’s science behind this,” said Lazovick in response to questions about the transportation options, which he referred to as “categorical changes” the board could make.
He also said the issue is not when students go to bed at night, but rather when they have to be woken up the next morning. He said he also wants to represent the hard work of the district’s staff, whom he said has done many things to assist students in the matter.
School president Jackie Barlow said Option 3 made the most sense to her at this time, and then added that there is “a price to (taking) no action.” She said students are tired, and she doesn’t think the board could afford to wait another year.
“They all need sleep, and we have to take that into account,” said Barlow.
Student representative Jessica Brookner said that students are already sleep-deprived. Many of her peers have trouble staying awake during the day, and lack of sleep is a constant topic of discussion among her and her friends, she said.
“All we talk about is how tired we are,” she said.
Check back for part 2 of the discussion when we delve into the comments from residents.