Amherst-Pelham committees consider flipping school start times

  • Amherst-Pelham Regional High School

Staff Writer
Monday, January 18, 2021

AMHERST — Classes for students at Amherst Regional middle and high schools could start later in the morning if and when in-person education resumes in the fall.

The Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee is pursuing a plan that, by the end of February, would determine the feasibility of essentially flipping the start times for the regional schools and the elementary schools in Amherst, Pelham, Shutesbury and Leverett.

“It’s worth a go spending the next six weeks deciding,” said Pelham School Committee member Ronald Mannino at a recent joint meeting of the committees.

Amherst Superintendent Michael Morris told committee members that under one possibility, the school day would start at 9:05 a.m. for middle and high school students, or 80 minutes later than the 7:45 a.m. start in place before the COVID-19 pandemic.

When in-person classes were last held, middle and high school students were in school buildings from 7:45 a.m. to 2:20 p.m. Elementary schools in the four member towns of the region are in school from around 8:30 a.m. to around 3 p.m.

Morris said with Northampton implementing a schedule in which elementary students start at 8 a.m., middle schoolers at 8:30 a.m. and high schoolers at 9 a.m., Amherst is in a good position to consider schedule changes.

He last made a presentation on adjusting the daily schedule in May 2019, during which he told committee members that a later start time for older students leads to better outcomes academically and benefits their health and well-being. The greatest beneficiaries would be those students considered underserved.

There is also evidence that students do more homework when school starts later in the morning.

The regional committee last voted on a later start time in fall 2012, following a two-year task force study, but that plan was rejected twice, in part because of the impact it would have on athletics. Some sports, such as alpine skiing, would have been eliminated under that plan.

Regional School Committee Chairwoman Allison McDonald said with remote learning already starting at 9 a.m., not making a change would feel like something is being taken away from students.

“It feels like we’re doing a disservice to our secondary students,” McDonald said.

In addition to potential impacts on sports, both competitions and practices, challenges remain to make sure the same buses can be used to transport all students.

The committee also has to get buy-in from the Shutesbury and Leverett elementary schools, which are in School Union 28. Morris said his discussions with their officials have shown a preference for flipping the schedules.

Emily Grybko, the student representative to the school committee and junior at Amherst Regional, said her observation with online instruction is that students appear to be more awake and more active participants in classes when they begin at 9 a.m.

“I’ve heard a lot of people say the late start time is definitely a positive,” Grybko said.

For elementary school families, a concern about an earlier start time is the possibility of more demand on after-school services.

Amherst representative Kerry Spitzer said there could be a strain as parents who are comfortable having their middle and high school students alone at home after school wouldn’t feel the same about their younger children.

Leverett representative Bethany Seeger said she also worries about the youngest children potentially having a much longer day in the classroom and then a structured setting after school.