New school start times have hidden costs

I am part of a family of five with three children ages 12, 10 and 6 all enrolled in Homer public schools. A Homer alum myself, I attended schools here K-12, went to college and graduate school then returned to Homer. I am well versed as both a student and now a parent of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. For years the public school system in Homer has run fairly smooth but the staggered school times that the KPBSD board has implemented this fall are coming at a great expense to the families, community and likely children’s safety while travelling to and from school.

There is no longer a smooth morning motion getting everyone out the door. Instead, it’s a pendulum of back and forth with multiple trips across town. I don’t even see our oldest child before leaving with the younger ones. At the end of the school day, the younger kids are done with school in early afternoon. This has increased child care needs and shortened or eliminated the productive day for many parents needing to work. Compared to last year, parents with children in different schools have lost two hours of a productive day. Those parents choosing to continue to work past 2 p.m. have had to take on the extra burden of child care costing upward of $30 or more per day. That equates to $150 per week or $600 per month. Some of these parents have elected just not to work. This alone adds economic burden to state and borough assisted programs.

Having our children ride the bus has become a dismal option. Our youngest child in first grade, at Paul Banks Elementary, rode the bus home on the first day of school. It took him 90 minutes to travel less than a mile by road. The bus passed East Hill Road three times before it finally turned to drop him off. Our other two children have experienced commute times nearly as long from West Homer Elementary and the Junior High School. There are stories of children having bathroom accidents on the bus because of these ridiculously long travel times. It is not fair or even humane to expect our children to spend two to three hours a day on buses traveling these short distances. As a result, many exasperated parents have resorted to driving their children to and from school at their own expense. This increases congestion, pollution and the potential for parking lot accidents.

Research was apparently discussed claiming that older children perform better when starting later in the day. While I haven’t seen this literature first hand I do know that sleep is a basic human need. It doesn’t take much investigation to know that if kids go to bed at an appropriate time they will be rested and able to learn at a respective time. Anchorage schools have started as early as 7:30 a.m. for generations and have produced highly functional and intelligent people such as executives, doctors, lawyers, master’s degrees, pilots, entrepreneurs and even astronauts. It’s a known fact that if you show up rested you’ll be able to learn regardless of the start time.

Let’s assume for a moment that there was absolutely no alternative to these staggered start times. In this scenario it makes no sense to start and release the younger students first. As winter approaches, they will be standing on the edge of icy and snowy streets waiting for their buses. Snow plows will have an incredibly hard time seeing these youngsters in the dark and this presents a real danger. An earlier start means more days of darkness at the bus stop and this increases the potential for an accident. I sincerely hope it does not take a tragedy for the school board to reconsider this decision to start the younger children first.

Staggered school start times have also adversely affected the timing of afterschool activities. Sports and other afternoon commitments are starting at least an hour later for the older kids. This means that winter sports, like cross country skiing, will be mostly in the dark without lighted trails to practice on. By the time their activities conclude there is not enough time to have dinner as a family or any semblance of an evening together before the younger kids have to go to bed to prepare for the next day.

Our children’s safety, their education and commitment to the community should be the primary concerns of the school board. The decision to change start times was made with disregard to all of these in an effort to retain a relatively small amount of money. I challenge the school board to evaluate how much they have actually saved in making this decision and how much burden they have passed to the children, their families and the community. The hidden costs, both tangible and intangible deserve close examination. It would be in everyone’s best interest to abandon the staggered start times, re-negotiate the bus contract and end the chaos this change has caused.

Jay Marley is a dentist who was raised in Homer and is now the father of three school-age children.