Pushing the start of elementary school back to 7:45 a.m. would cost local families with two working parents important time together, create problems with respect to childcare and otherwise harm New Canaan’s youngest students, parents said Monday night.
When the Board of Education recommended in June that the district pursue a new schedule that also would push the start of New Canaan High School back to 8:20 a.m., it wasn’t clear that the elected body was ruling out a more expensive option that would see all of Saxe Middle School and NCHS start at 8:15 a.m. and all three elementary schools at 9:10 a.m., according to Jennifer Dalipi, mother to one child at South School and one at Saxe.
“That was obviously the one that most beneficial to all of our students, no matter their age,” Dalipi told the Board at its regular meeting, held in the Wagner Room at the high school.
Saying it’s understood that a scenario where New Canaan buses its public schoolchildren in two tiers rather than three would be more expensive (because it would require more buses), Dalipi said she still “cannot fathom that our children’s health, the wellbeing from our tiniest 5-year-old, to be made to get up earlier, in the dark, and get to school, we cannot find the solution.”
“So shame on us as a community if we cannot make it happen. Our high schoolers should not suffer for the little ones, and the little ones should not suffer for the older ones. This is New Canaan. I am not the richest person here. I work really hard, and so does my husband, so we can be here to give our children this education. And you’re telling me we cannot find—with tomato-and-mozzarella sandwiches, and seven-grain bread, and all the amazing things we do—that we cannot find maybe 1% to save, to pay for itself, or a portion of it, or the difference. And if our elected officials can’t figure that out and say it’s too hard, them shame on them. It’s a disgrace. This is their health. This is their education. We are here to give them the best chance they have. A budget should not be it. We should find a solution and a way. We shouldn’t back down from what’s right for our children.”
Dalipi and others spoke during public comment periods at the meeting, which also included an update on school start times from Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi. A large committee is to convene Oct. 21 to study the start times schedule favored by the Board, with an eye on including funding for the new busing system in the district’s proposed spending plan for next academic year.
Some of the lingering questions that still face New Canaan Public Schools include “who goes first” to school in the morning and how early, Luizzi said.
“Because that will determine how late is the last tier,” he said. “We continually are running up against these hard barriers of 125 miles of roads, the number of buses and the amount of time it takes to travel them. As you know right now, in our system, we have three tiers and 45 minutes between tiers. So how do we compress that time? To try to manage that time in the morning and the last tier in the afternoon. So we are looking at how quickly can buses complete a tier and get to the next one. And remember, it is the afternoon runs that determine the morning start times. It’s getting those kids home and then getting back for the next tier that is the bigger challenge. We are looking always at what are the financial realities of where we are. Is there a two-tier options of what we are looking at? We are continuing to develop the scenario that the Board guided us to develop back in June, but we are also making sure that everything is being looked at and reviewed.”
Currently, the town spends about $3.2 million on busing students to New Canaan Public Schools, consultants have said. The figure is based on using five 29-passenger vans and 28 77-passenger buses that are deployed in three rounds of pickups—one for each current “tier” of start times—to collect a total of 3,420 students who ride the bus.
Moving to two tiers would cost an additional approximately $1.4 million annually, consultants have said. The scenario under consideration now would see New Canaan pay an additional $300,000 to $450,000 annually, officials have said.
Luizzi said that school districts in presenting proposals for changing start times sometimes present different spending options to municipal funding bodies.
Rooted in established health data, the idea of changing school start times first was broached at a public meeting two summers ago. A survey of middle- and high-school students, parents and guardians, school staff and community members was inconclusive, according to results shared at a presentation in June. Members of the Board of Ed said at the time that they were not in complete agreement on whether they were ready to give district administrators guidance.
Amy Zinser, mother to three East Schoolers, said that while she has no objection to changing the start time at the high school, it shouldn’t be done so at the cost of younger students.
“This town is already indifferent at best to the needs of families with two working parents,” Zinser said. “And this policy, I see it as an anti-feminist policy. In the aggregate it will nudge women to quit their jobs, to stay at home to deal with these additional childcare hours. By divorcing the elementary school schedule from the workday, you are just increasing the need for after-school childcare.”
Luizzi in his comments said that he’d attended a meeting with area superintendents recently, and they discussed efforts to change school start times, among other matters.
“Other districts in the area are either not engaged or only somewhat engaged in the topic,” Luizzi said. “We seem to be the most engaged right now in sort of reviewing this and looking at it, following the path as we laid out before.”
Yet New Canaan resident Steve Eno noted that Norwalk Public Schools had formed a committee that met 11 times during a nine-month period, and on Sept. 3 published a report that includes a “definitive recommendation” on school start times that’s expected to take hold next academic year. Under the recommendation, which is estimated to cost an additional $457,000 per year, “With an 8:30 a.m. high school start time, the current middle school schedule can be maintained at 8:15 a.m. No elementary school would begin prior to 8 a.m. and most would follow the 2019-20 schedule.”
“It is really sad that Norwalk can pull this together in less than a year and we are still talking about it,” Eno said.
Dalipi said that she gets up at 5:30 a.m., commutes three hours per day and is lucky to get to bed at 10 p.m.
“So of that hour and a half, I devote to my kids,” she said, adding that her choice to take on a job with such a demanding schedule is “my choice as an adult.”
“Rarely does an office even in New York or here start before 8 o’clock in the morning. And that is for adults, for we who can choose when we go to bed and what time we get up in the morning. Why we are asking our children to do something that most of us in this community don’t do, wouldn’t do, is beyond my imagination. So I cannot understand why this is even being proposed.”
Luizzi said during his update that as the administration and committee looks at “the scenario that the Board directed us toward and the other ones, as we think about why we are going into this at all, it really was to work to see if there is a way to change the system so that it is advantageous to every child, with a focus on student health and wellness across the board.”
“The goal is to ensure that our system is helping the students to be as healthy as possible,” he said. “The goal is not to change school start times. The goal is to have a school system that facilitates student health and wellness.”