NORWALK, Conn. — The Norwalk Board of Education is turning back the clock on its “bell times” and will be returning to the start and end times it had in 2019-20, effective on Oct. 4.
The 5-0-3 vote at Tuesday’s BoE meeting followed an outcry against the traffic gridlock the start of the school year brought, with the Healthier School Start Time plan in effect while COVID-19 still has life rearranged and road construction compounding the problems. Teenagers spoke to the Board, explaining that the inability for drivers to make it to their destinations counteracted any gain the Board had hoped to give them by allowing them to sleep an hour later.
While advocates had said “the stress was going to go down and everyone was going to be happier,” since school reopened Sept. 30, “between Norwalk High School and Brien McMahon, there’s been six fights, at least six fights, fistfights,” said Jake Bella, a student at NHS and P-Tech (Pathways in Technology Early College High School), one of 25 people to address the Board.
Union leaders unanimously asked that the current schedule be changed.
“Although high school start times were pushed back to allow students or 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,” Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon said. It’s toughest on the little kids who need a nap in the afternoon, and, “We have lost good teachers due to the new schedule. When it is changed again, we will likely lose more. We need to do this carefully and cautiously.”
Board members had been prepared to consider two options developed by school administrators, both recommending early start times for elementary and middle school students. But after hearing multiple speakers describe challenges, and in light of 130 emailed comments, Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella made a different recommendation.
“One of the things that we might want to consider is, for this year, reverting back to the previous bell time, allowing us the opportunity to re-engage and expand the task force work to further study the Healthy Start Time option, and make sure that, one, first and foremost, that our students are arriving to school on time,” Estrella said. “Two, we do this in a later time, that it will allow us to further look at additional factors that are important. And also it would give us an opportunity, given some of the COVID challenges that we have had, to initiate this at a time where we will have acclimated more and hopefully at that point the pandemic will be at its termination.”
BoE member Mike Barbis, who voted against the Healthier School Start Time plan two years ago, made the motion to revert to the 2019-20 schedule while studying the issue further.
“This isn’t a traffic issue, it’s a bus operational issue, a logistical issue, that we can’t just hope will get better. It’s just that the bus routes as designed, at the end of the day, are not working as planned. And so we have to do something,” Barbis said. The “cleanest, simplest” option was to start high school at 7:30 a.m. and, “I’ve never heard of a school system that changes their start times in the middle of the school year. So this will be a first but it’s something we have to do. We might as well pull the band aid and do it sooner rather than later.”
Heidi Keyes, who helped lead the Healthier School Start Time initiative, was on board. She wasn’t thrilled with any of the scenarios administrators had laid out and thought they’d need time to digest, she said. “But I agree it’s not sustainable. It’s absolutely not sustainable, what’s happening now. So I think we’ve got to figure out what our next steps will be.”
A survey showed 62% of high school students wanted to go back to the 7:30 a.m. start time and “it was an eye opener for me to hear all the comments tonight,” she said, as she worked her way to voting in favor of reverting to 2019-20. While the data backed up delaying the high school start time, “we have to look at it again through a different lens and, and what we need to do that’s going to work really for for all levels for elementary, middle, and high school students.”
Diana Carpio, Suzanne Koroshetz, Sherelle Harris, Barbis and Keyes voted in favor of reverting. Sarah LeMieux, Godfrey Azima and Chairman Colin Hosten abstained. Erica DePalma was absent.
“I keep thinking about that phrase, follow the science and the amount of research that has gone into thinking about healthy start times for older learners, not just here in Norwalk but across the country,” Hosten said. Gridlock is happening nationwide and, “I don’t know that we could solve the traffic issue by going with either the options presented tonight, just because I think there’s so many factors that are involved. I don’t want to make a decision tonight, that then just shifts the gridlock either earlier or later in different parts of town.”