NORWALK, Conn. — Even as Norwalk Public Schools works to revert to its 2019-20 bell time schedule the outcry continues, with a petition asking the Board of Education to continue giving high schoolers an extra hour to sleep.
“I am requesting a stop to this reversion of school start times until we brainstorm, trial, and test every other possibility first while collecting more sufficient data,” Rob Pascarelli wrote in his petition. “At least try the two options that were initially offered and if after all other possibilities are exhausted and the data shows nothing else will work, then we can think about reverting the time change, but wait until next school year to do it, not this year. It is too detrimental to the mental health and well being of our children to do it now.”
That’s not likely to be effective, even with 133 signatures in just a few days, as NPS is on track for the reversion. Board of Education Chairman Colin Hosten voiced support for the move Monday and Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella is expected to give an update at Tuesday’s BoE meeting.
About 62% of the Norwalk high school students who responded to a survey said they’d like to go back to a 7:30 a.m. start time, NPS Chief of Staff and Communications Brenda Wilcox Williams said last week. And participation was high, she reported, with 3,139 responses out of about 4,000 high school students.
“That’s very representative of our student body. About 47% were Norwalk high school students; 33% were in McMahon. And then we had P-Tech, and Center for Global Studies represented at about 10.8%; a little bit less for CGS,” she said to the Board of Education.
A student had put out a petition and 1,248 signers were interested in the 7:30 a.m. start time, Estrella said.
Adults were also in favor of a change, with 67% of survey respondents assenting to that possibility, although no specifics were offered in the question, according to Wilcox Williams. Most teachers “are less happy with the current situation stemming from the changes in schedule,” Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon said.
“Students are late, they’re dismissed late and they’re impacting their instructional time. Athletes, additionally impacted. Teachers have increased their commute time, sometimes by more than 50% daily, leaving less time for family and personal obligations,” Yordon said. “Although high school start times were push back to allow students more sleep, students and teachers report they have to leave for school at the same time as previously to avoid traffic and arrive before classes begin. High school students are unable to care for younger siblings after school.”
“Teachers are grappling with the new proposed start times with amazement, distress and dismay,” NFT First Vice President Joe Giandurco said. “We’ve made our arrangements for this new school year put together our childcare, our graduate courses and other after school activities, with care to center around families and other professional obligations with as much as a one-hour shift.”
The move to change the high schools’ start times started with the best of intentions, a concern for the teenagers’ health. A task force studied the idea for 18 months, with BoE Policy Committee Chairwoman Heidi Keyes on the Committee, as a spark plug for the initiative.
“I think the science, the data, backed up the reasoning behind this, but, fast forward, COVID, changes that have happened, you know, kids being remote versus being in full-in-person now, the busing… we have to look at all those variables,” Keyes said later.
NPS was expected to do a traffic study before implementing the Healthy High School Start Time plan, but that didn’t happen because of COVID-19, NPS Transportation Coordinator Johanna Zanvettor said. After the BoE vote in October 2019 to approve the plan, “We started working on scheduling, we did run dry runs, but we didn’t really have that opportunity to vet that service.”
The later times were put into effect last year but the schools weren’t full, due to COVID-19, administrators said.
This year, a full 85% of buses were late in the first week of school and 75% in the second week, Assistant Superintendent of Business and Operations Sandra Faioes said last week. BoE member Godfrey Azima asked how much of the delays were just attributable to drivers learning new routes.
NPS has had the same team of drivers for years, some of them for more than two decades, and “maybe four or five new drivers this year,” NPS Transportation Coordinator Johanna Zanvettor said. “We are still in a driver shortage, which is a nationwide issue due to COVID.”
But, “Although nationwide there have been shortages, we’ve been very fortunate in Norwalk to be able to have a cohort of drivers to fulfill the needs of the district,” Estrella said. “…Unlike some districts where some drivers have to run double shifts, because of the fact that they don’t have enough drivers, we don’t have that challenge in Norwalk.”
There are 59 full-capacity buses and 19 small buses on the road, but “because of COVID, parents are just choosing to drop off, they’re not using the buses,” Faioes said.
Keyes asked what might be done to hire new drivers.
“The bus company is offering a sign on bonus incentive to drivers who are fully licensed of $2,000. And anyone who is already working for the bus company, who’s a current employee, who refers anyone is also being offered a $2,000 sign on bonus for that person,” Zanvettor said. “We have also been working with the local agencies, Family and Children Agency, Carver Center and also the Norwalk Housing Authority. So we have sent out a flyer and worked with those agencies to try to promote for new hires. They’ve also run hiring events in local shopping plazas. And they are currently working on or have been working on an online promotion for new hires.”
The lateness is due to a domino effect, BoE member Mike Barbis said, as each bus works three routes and cannot begin the second route before finishing the first, in what’s referred to as “tiers” of routes.
You might solve the problem by putting more buses out there, but they’re $90,000 a piece, and “it’s not like we can add 20 more buses,” he said.
“Tweaking” won’t help either, Estrella said. “We looked at an eight o’clock start time, it created a close to a half a million-dollar additional costs in doing that.”
She added, “We had extensive conversations today with members of the Greenwich community and looking at some of their challenges. One of the things that is important to know is that they spent an additional $1.3 million in order to get to the point that they are and they’re still facing some challenges. Particularly, they fixed their start time challenge, they now have a dismissal time challenge.”
Given the complexity, “I don’t think we’re going to resolve it within a few days,” she said, advocating for reverting to the old schedule and studying the issue for another year.
Estrella was not superintendent when the plan was developed and voted upon.
Barbis sharply criticized that process.
“Obviously, it’s going to be a lot more difficult to implement 8:30 after everything we’ve learned, but we should have a proper vetted decision, which we did not have before,” he said. “We did not have student input. They came and spoke at a Board meeting. But the decision had already been made. And the hearings were window dressing.”
Abstentions; unions pleased
After the lengthy discussion, the Board voted 5-0-3 to revert to the 2019-20 schedule, with Erica DePalma absent. Since then, the three members who abstained have been blasted by some for not taking a stand.
BoE member Sarah LeMieux, in the lead up to the vote, had pointed out that reverting wasn’t on the schedule as an option when the meeting began. “I just feel like I don’t have enough information to make the choice this evening,” she said.
She had earlier commented that the personal stories relayed by public speakers were very moving but anecdotal, and “I think it’s really important to honor people’s experiences, and do our best to make changes that benefit the most amount of people, but also to use as much data as we can to make those decisions.”
Azima, who also abstained, had spoken of being “planful, to anticipate as much as possible, what the challenges will be from this change.”
Hosten was fluent in expressing his own reflections. Barbis made the motion to revert to the previous bell times, but Hosten said he’d use different language: “delay the implementation of healthy start until it makes sense to do so.”
“It would not be saying, ‘let’s not follow the science,’ but I think it would be saying ‘let’s actually follow the science’ and realize that we’re still in the middle of a global pandemic and are not equipped at this time to implement the new high school start times the way we the way we should,” he said.
While there was overwhelming feedback against the 8:30 a.m. high school start time and the ripple effects that had on other school levels, “There may be many people who are able to cope with this new paradigm, in a way that did not prompt them to speak up tonight. And I do want to acknowledge, you know, in the survey data that we got, we have about, you know, 40% of people who are fine,” Hosten said.
Not all of the feedback was against the current approach.
“My children are both being very successful with the Healthy Start Time,” Diana Toomey Wilson, mother of a freshman and a senior, said. “…They’re both arriving at school without being so stressed. They really show up, lit up and they come home feeling good. They’re both smiling when they come home. So I think it’s taken a lot of the angst out of their approach to their day.”
Hosten said, “I don’t want to make a decision tonight, that then just shifts the gridlock either early or earlier in different parts of town. And I also want to, you know, just say that we knew when this was initially approved, that this was going to be a big change, that would take time for people to adjust to and as Heidi has said, we’re in the third week of school. So I don’t know that it’s fair to say that this is working or not just yet.”
At Monday night’s Democratic Town Committee meeting, Hosten said, “I did abstain from the vote because I thought we were missing a little bit of information for two schools in particular, but I think that it does make sense to delay the implementation. … I think we have to be cognizant of the fact that we are still in the middle of a global pandemic.”
The reversion is scheduled for Oct. 4. On Friday, Yordon mentioned the “two schools,” in telling NancyOnNorwalk that the unions approve of the Board’s decision.
“On behalf of the Board of Education Unions Coalition, our members agreed that there was a need for an adjustment and this reversion to 19-20 is the best of several options,” Yordon wrote. “Fewer schools will have large changes in their start times, so fewer people will be negatively impacted. Also, this is the only option that resolved the athletic concerns. No solution is perfect, however. We have members who are scrambling and anxious to put new child and elder care arrangements in place, just like the parents in the community. We need Fox Run and Kendall to have a clear plan as soon as possible or they will not be ready on October 4.”
Former BoE member Bryan Meek had criticisms.
“This issue really stems from over-development in Norwalk, and not building a SoNo school,” he said last week. “So you can rejigger the schedule all you want, but it’s not going to fix the problem. The problem is, is we don’t have schools in the neighborhoods where children live, and the city’s growing. Whether you like that or not, it’s a fact it’s not going to go away.”
The plan to build a new school behind the Nathaniel Ely preschool, shepherded years ago by Barbis, has fallen apart due to a dispute over the plan’s inclusion of a small amount of park space in the proposal. The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has declined to approve a related land swap due to objections from community leaders. Without the approval, the plan is sunk.
Mayor Harry Rilling mentioned the SoNo school at Monday’s DTC meeting.
“We have a meeting coming up in the next day or two in the state of Connecticut relative to the school in South Norwalk, and presenting the plans that we have in place for that,” Rilling said. “We are moving forward with a new Cranbury school, Jefferson is being renovated-as-new as we speak. And as you know, Ponus has already been completed. Also, we’re going to be moving forward with the new Norwalk High School.”
Updated, 3:30 p.m.: Sentence removed.