ANDOVER — For most people, riding a bus to school is a simple rite of passage.
Starting in kindergarten or first grade, your parents escort you to the bus stop and wait with you until the big yellow vehicle rumbles to a stop, the door opening with a squeak and a hiss. Up the rubber-covered steps you go, transported into another world — the world of school.
In Andover, however, the timing of that simple act has set off a massive controversy.
Thursday night was the latest in a string of School Committee meetings organized to discuss the pros and cons of changing the start times, and thus the bus times, so that older students start later than those in the elementary grades.
School Committee member Shannon Scully has pushed for the change pretty much since the day she was elected. Her website carries her reasoning: "Science shows that later school start times have a positive effect on the physical health, mental health, and academic performance of adolescents."
Scully started a district discussion on this topic and is part of the working group charged with developing options for later school start times for the community to consider.
In essence, Scully and several of her colleagues want to push middle and high school students to a later start time to give them more sleep. That would mean, in most cases, making elementary school children start at an earlier time.
The ripple effect of that change would be felt across the district and beyond, as it also has an impact on private schools. Under state law, Andover public schools are required to bus Andover children who are enrolled in private school to and from those schools. In Andover, that includes the Montessori, Pike and St. Augustine schools, or about 128 students.
Special education transportation is tangentially affected as well.
All of this is contained in a transportation study by EduLog, a Montana transportation consultant. Throwing around phrases like "double-runs" and "route optimization," EduLog staff presented their transportation study to the School Committee and about 50 parents Thursday night.
What parents, committee members and school staff learned was that Option 1, changing nothing, is the cheapest and possibly the most efficient way to go.
"It's a delicate balance but it works and you don't need to add more buses," said one of the consultants via speaker phone.
'Flips' and complaints
Every other option that includes what they called a "flip" of start times — picking elementary school kids up first and middle and high school students later — costs money in terms of new buses.
The cheapest "flip" option, in fact, means the purchase of five buses at a cost of about $500,000.
Another "flip" option requires the purchase of 13 buses, presumably at a cost of $1.3 million.
Any purchases would need to be approved by Town Meeting, which doesn't convene until spring 2020.
Another thing parents and school officials learned Thursday night was that the teachers' union opposes changing start times and prefers Option 1 — status quo. Matt Bach, president of the Andover Teachers' Association, said there were more important problems than school start times.
He decried the massive amounts of screen time students are subjected to, not just at home and during down-time, but also in the classroom, where computers and other electronic devices are frequently used in learning.
He said the union recommends "no cell-phone day" initiatives, saying students are also losing sleep because they are spending too much time on their phones, tablets or laptops.
Meg McLaughlin, a parent of two middle-schoolers and one elementary school student, echoed Bach's comments when she told the story of how her middle-school children are picked up from the bus stop at 6:55 a.m., dropped off at school 10 minutes later, and then have 30 to 40 minutes until school starts at 7:45 a.m.
"They sit around and look at their smart phones," she said, noting that she'd prefer the district buy enough buses so that all students get to school without so much lag time before school starts.
"Take one year, invest in the transportation system, eliminate double-busing and have a level playing field," she said. "It's an egregious inequity that needs to be addressed."
Other parents lamented the amount of time students sit on buses. The consultant said one of the assumptions of their study was that nobody would be on a bus for longer than an hour.
Erin Adams, mother of a second-grader at West Elementary School, said the problem of sleep deprivation is serious, but affects children of all ages.
"I don't want any child at any age to suffer," she said. "That should be upsetting to anyone if a child is sleep deprived. But statistics show that one in six grade-school children are not getting enough sleep. It affects their learning and their behavior."
Calling for committee
While School District officials seem pretty well set on the idea of changing start times, they have made some concessions at the request of parents.
For example, Superintendent Shelly Berman said he would be putting out applications soon for a parent advisory committee made up of representatives of all the schools. The group would meet in January and February and come up with some ideas on how to implement the new start times.
Parent Brianna Rowley, speaking on behalf of APAC, or Andover: Protect All Children, welcomed the suggestion of a parent advisory committee, but added that the members should not only be from the schools in the district, but should include a number of other people as well, such as the athletic director, teachers and a parent representative of SEPAC, which is the Special Education Parent Advisory Council.
The committee, she said, should also include one student and two School Committee members, parents and officials from the administrations of impacted private schools, a representative from the local small business community, and, a member of APAC.
"A Community Advisory Committee will no doubt add collaborative energy and creativity to this process," she said. "It will serve to guide the school district, the School Committee, and the community at large – carefully and thoughtfully in this process. It will enable and ensure full community engagement in working toward this change. It will cast a far-reaching web of information gathering and information output."