Board delays decision on new school start times to consider more information about available bus drivers

Anne Byrd keeps watch around a crosswalk as school buses bring children to Spotswood Elementary. (File photo)

The Harrisonburg City School Board will vote on the proposed new start times for the city’s school district at its March 19 work session to give board members more time to consider new information, including about available bus drivers.

The Board was expected to vote on school times, which came from a task force that Superintendent Michael Richards established last fall. That group reevaluated the schedules for all schools in accordance with recent scientific data indicating the relationship between adolescent students’ sleep and their academic performance. The recommendations include having elementary schools start earlier—at 7:45 a.m. instead of 9:10 a.m.— and middle schools start later—9:05 a.m. instead of 7:40 a.m.—while the two high schools would start five minutes later than Harrisonburg High School’s day begins now at 8:20.

In addition, the school days would gain back 30 minutes of instructional time that the district shaved off during the pandemic. 

But the district is still wrestling with a shortage of bus drivers. The board moved to postpone a vote adopting the new school days after receiving a report just hours before the meeting that detailed the severity of the driver shortage.

The school district has 46 school bus drivers employed but only 37 assigned to bus routes. The remaining bus drivers are either substitutes, on medical leave, or are awaiting their commercial drivers’ licenses or their assignment to a bus route. 

The report also showed an additional 19 drivers would be needed so school buses would not have to transport a second load of students. At least 65 total drivers would be needed to transport middle and high school students around the same time, with additional school buses as well. 

“I think we would be irresponsible if we didn’t take into account all the information available,” the board’s chair, Andy Kohen, said. 

The rest of the board agreed that they have a difficult decision ahead. Board member Tom Domonoske said the data that reached them before Tuesday’s meeting added more weight to that decision. 

“This, to me, feels like the most important issue we’ll address this year,” Domonoske said. “Our job at the core, is to ask: ‘what’s the best for the education of our students?’ and then deal with the reality of the limitations to implement that.”

He also said the bus driver shortage was just one issue, and the board should continue to discuss the effect new hours could have on students and families.

“It’s not just a transportation issue, it’s a childcare issue, it’s an after school issue,” Domonoske said. “No matter what we do, we are sure there are people who are sure we did that wrong thing. So, we’ll find that out in two weeks.”

The proposed new start times have sparked strong opposition from the community, including reactions from parents, students, and HCPS faculty. Many community members told the board about their concerns at a public forum last month, citing a variety of reasons, including conflicts with students’ after school activities, childcare and a disproportionate impact on marginalized and lower-income families. 

Parents, students and staff also shared their thoughts in a survey distributed among the HCPS community in February. Sal Romero, HCPS’s Chief of Staff and one of the task force leaders, said 1,900 community members responded.

“We did a lot of outreach and we feel like this is the one time in the history of the city schools where we have received so much feedback,” Romero told the Board. 

The results showed overwhelming disapproval of the proposed changes. 

Board member Kristen Loflin was dismayed at the findings. 

“Hearing the extreme pushback on something that’s just following science was really hard,” Loflin said. “I feel very strongly about that, yet we have a lot of red here in this survey.”

Board member Kaylene Siegle said she felt a similar frustration.

“I felt conflicted at the beginning,” Siegle said. “We don’t like the current times now, and we don’t like the solutions, there’s no perfect way of satisfying the whole.”

Board member Deb Fitzgerald said the proposed start times would be a change made with limited resources, and limited decisions, with HCPS students and parents dealing with the brunt of that change. 

“It’s all of the adaptations that all of these families have made over the years to deal with an imperfect schedule, and we have to disrupt all of those adaptations,” Fitzgerald said. “I know what we should do, I just don’t know what we can do.”

Vice Chair Emma Phillips said changing the school start times would not be a matter of if, but when. 

“Even if this year turns out not to be the right year to make a change, I think it’s important to work towards making that change in the near future,” Phillips said. “It may take time to put our pieces into alignment, but I would like us to consider [moving the secondary students to later times].”

Peter Johnson, a parent and member of the School Start Times Task Force, was the only speaker during the public comment period and said he was frustrated the board postponed the vote. 

“Stop trying to find data. The community has spoken they aren’t in favor of this, what more do you need?” Johnson asked. “I understand it’s a difficult decision,and we want to decide what is best for the constituents. There is a point where enough is enough — make the vote.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of drivers needed to drive middle school and high school students at the same time. It is 65 total drivers.

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