Here’s what’s behind the proposed new school times — and why some families are concerned

Two people stand at a podium while others sit in chairs behind them
Russell Leary and Emani Morse, co-CEOs of On the Road Collaborative, urge Harrisonburg City Public School Board members to consider the effects the school day changes will have on child care and after school activities. (Photo by Calvin Pynn)

The Harrisonburg City School Board is considering new start and end times for schools, and the potential changes aren’t going over well with some parents. 

The board heard from parents, teachers, students, and other community members at a special meeting held at Skyline Middle School on Monday night. The changes, which a School Start Times Task Force recommended for the 2024-25 school year, would have the city’s middle schools starting 90 minutes later and elementary schools starting 90 minutes earlier, while shifting the high school schedule up by five minutes. 

The current and proposed new start times are as follows:

Elementary schools: 
– Current hours: 9:10 a.m.-3:25 p.m.
– Recommended new hours: 7:45 a.m.-2 p.m.

Middle schools: 
– Current hours: 7:40 a.m.-2:05 p.m.
– Recommended new hours: 9:05 a.m.-4 p.m.

High schools: 
– Current hours: 8:20 a.m. to 2:45 p.m.
– Recommended new hours: 8:25 a.m.-3:20 p.m.

The recommended schedule changes would add 30 minutes of instructional time back into the school day, which had been removed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Bus driver shortage influenced recommendation

Superintendent Michael Richards said Monday that considering new school times is based on research published by the National Institute of Health, which found that adolescent students benefit from later class times. However, the recent shortage of bus drivers in the district was what ultimately prompted the school board to reconsider class schedules, Richards said. This factored into the task force’s recommendation to more dramatically alter the middle school schedules, as opposed to the high schools. 

Richards formed the task force – which includes HCPS Chief of Staff Sal Romero, school board members Emma Phillips and Kristen Loflin and more than a dozen other HCPS community members – last year. 

Richards called attention to a bus parked outside Skyline Middle School with a sign reading: “Drive a bus for Harrisonburg City Schools.”

“That’s not a coincidence,” Richards said.”We put that out there, hoping people might go away from this meeting and say: “we need drivers, it would make a big difference in what we do.”

While the new start times address the more immediate issue of the bus driver shortage, Richards said the root of the proposed changes are in the NIH’s findings. Those show that adolescent students have better academic achievement, attendance, and behavior with later start times.  

Parents and teachers received a survey about the new start times early last week. Richards said more than 600 staff and more than 1,200 others have filled them out, and student focus groups also convened to discuss the changes. 

People sit at a long table
Superintendent Michael Richards, left, and members of the Harrisonburg City Public Schools’ board listen to speakers during Monday’s public meeting about proposed new school times. (Photo by Calvin Pynn)

People raise concerns Monday

Many of those who spoke to the board Monday night were upset with the proposed start times. About 50-60 people attended the meeting, 26 of whom approached the podium to talk about the task force’s suggestions. 

Their concerns included: 

  • schedule difficulties for low income, working parents
  • taking time away from after-school activities, 
  • and inequitable impact on the city’s more marginalized communities.

The impact on child care, especially for members of Harrisonburg’s Hispanic community, was one of the most common concerns expressed at the meeting. 

Javier Calleja, a Spanish instructor at James Madison University, told the board that ending the elementary school day earlier in the afternoon could create a burden for financially strained families. 

“Providing child care is very expensive, as we know,” Calleja said. “A family with higher incomes could be able to provide childcare after school until [the parents] get home, but what about single mothers, or single fathers, who only have one income and have to pay for every expense on their own?”

Jessica Spiller, a parent, pointed out that older children often look after younger siblings in the afternoons when school lets out. She said that could complicate childcare for siblings in elementary and middle school, respectively, being let out of school more than an hour apart. 

“Older children take care of siblings in the afternoons, and being that you’re asking elementary school kids at 2:00, that puts a strain on families,” Spiller said. 

She suggested establishing more after school programs for elementary students in Harrisonburg. Several community members representing organizations with after school programs spoke at the meeting, including Emani Morse and Russell Leary, co-CEOs for On The Road Collaborative. 

Leary said the proposal seems to benefit the city’s high schoolers, but doesn’t do as much for middle schoolers. 

“Moving the end time from 2 to 4 means there’s just not that many hours to close down learning gaps during those developmental years,” Leary said. 

He also suggested addressing the issue of bus driver shortages at the source, rather than altering the school schedules. Morse said the new start times could severely impact their work with HCPS students. 

“There is a 6,000 hour learning gap between low income students and their peers who are not low income, and we’re working to bridge that gap,” Morse said. “If that change is made, specifically for the middle school, that severely hurts what we can provide, if we are able to provide anything at all.”

Madeline Mongold, a math teacher at Thomas Harrison Middle School, told the board that adding 30 minutes back into the school day would be unnecessary, as it would subtract from planning time.

“Having an extra 30 minutes of your day to plan and to do all the necessary meetings you need to do makes a very large difference,” Mongold said. “I think for teacher retention and burnout, it makes a lot more of a difference than you some people think. 

City Council member Chris Jones, whose children attend the city’s schools, also addressed the school board Monday night. He said a majority of the community who have connections to the school district have been left out of the conversation around the new start times. 

“When I first heard about these changes, I realized this was yet another example of a disconnect in communication from HCPS to me as a parent,” Jones said. “I don’t think this conversation is robust enough, or frequent enough, for the lack of childcare, or the amount of work time that parents have to put into, to allow this room to be filled.” 

He suggested that the school board hold conversations with Harrisonburg’s largest employers — such as JMU and Sentara, among others — as well as lower income working families before moving forward with any major changes to the school schedules. 

“If you don’t know how the most vulnerable are going to work their resources, then you’re not able to protect, and when we give you our children, we’re hoping you’ll protect them throughout the day,” Jones said. 

Some offer support

Not all community members at the meeting took issue with the proposed changes. Some, like Harrisonburg parent Chris Tipton, said an earlier start time for the elementary school students is the right move. 

“It sounds like the best course of action was to do these changes ten years ago, but the next best time to do these changes is now,” Tipton said. 

Another HCPS parent, Hannah Wittmer, spoke in support of later start times for middle and high school students for the sake of their mental health. 

“There is such a clear link between sleep and mental health that I feel very aware of, knowing that adolescents need to be sleeping later,” Wittmer said. 

What’s next?

Richards addressed some of the concerns about certain pockets of the HCPS community being left out of the conversation. He said he plans to keep the survey open — at least through the district’s Family Conference day on Feb. 19 — in order to get the most representative feedback. 

At the end of the meeting, School Board Chair Andy Kohen said the conversation around the new start times will continue. 

“This is not your last chance to register your views with us,” he said. “We will respond, I can promise you that.”

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