District posts new start times for schools across Philadelphia, disables access after backlash

The changes would force most high schoolers to start the day at 7:30 a.m.

School bus shown in the rear-view mirror of a vehicle.
Use the National Guard to get Philly kids to school? Hite is considering it. (David Handschuh for Chalkbeat)

The Philadelphia school district posted a list of new bell times on its website Friday and sent an email to parents to notify them about how the changes could affect their students’ transportation and schedules.

The list had most high schools starting the school day at 7:30 a.m., in many cases at least a half hour earlier than pre-pandemic times. 

On Monday, after many parents, principals, and teachers complained, district officials said they had not finalized start and end times for schools for the fall, and they removed the list from the district’s website.

The new bell schedule for the coming school year has been a subject of controversy since May, when district officials floated a tentative plan, with most schools having one of three start times — 7:30 a.m., 8:15 a.m., or 9 a.m. The schedules posted Friday would have altered start times for most city schools as the district prepares for the resumption of full-time in-person learning for all students after more than a year. The first day of school is Aug. 31.

Superintendent William Hite said at the May Board of Education meeting that the schedule changes were “evolving” and that the district originally intended for high schools to start later, saying that he favors that approach.

But the list released Friday did not reflect any move in that direction. Almost all high schools had start times of 7:30 a.m., with a handful at 8:15 a.m.

The American Association of Pediatrics’s guidance calls insufficient sleep in adolescents an “important public health issue” and says middle and high schools should start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. 

Late in the day, the district issued a statement saying that the district’s “long-term goal, as much as possible, is to transition to a tiered bell schedule across schools that reflects what science clearly indicates is best for student learning.” This year, the statement said, the district is considering community input “while addressing the very real and critical driver shortages that the District and other transportation organizations across Philadelphia and the country are facing due to COVID-19.”

Robin Cooper, the head of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, or CASA, which represents principals, said the school leaders had been “blindsided” by the decision to limit the available start times and had not been consulted. And many parents and community members took to Twitter to complain, saying the district’s decision was “nonsensical” and “ignored loads of research.”

By Monday morning, the list on the website — which appeared incomplete, omitting schools with names that come alphabetically after Sharswood — had been disabled, with a “coming soon” notation instead. But those who bookmarked the document can still access it. The district is also planning online forums on July 14 and July 21 to discuss reasons for the new schedule.

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Overall, the rollout of the changes has been chaotic and confusing. Even as the list was posted, individual principals were sending letters to families announcing different start times. Timothy McKenna, President (principal) of Central High School, sent a letter to parents on Thursday — a day before the district posted its schedule changes — saying that Central would start at 8 a.m., but the list said 7:30 a.m. Carver High School of Engineering and Science will start at 7:45 a.m., according to a letter sent to parents from Principal Ted Domers. The district’s list said 7:30 a.m.

“I’m confused because I keep getting different kinds of information,” said Nutsa Abashidze, a senior at Central. “I just hope they figure everything out before school starts.”

Hite said in May that the effort to standardize school start times was driven by transportation needs. He said other districts were confronting a bus driver shortage, “and if they’re all struggling with that problem, we’re anticipating that will be a problem for us.” The district contracts out most of its yellow bus service to outside vendors. 

This rationale did not sit well with Cooper, CASA’s president. 

“You cannot run a district based on transportation needs, you must run a district based on educational needs,” Cooper said. She criticized the way the decision was made, saying her members — most of whom take July for vacation — must now mollify angry and confused students, teachers and parents. 

“The issue here is that the district decision did not involve school leaders, but the principals are left to deal with the aftermath,” Cooper said. “People are in a tizzy, they’re calling me from the beach.”

One principal, who did not want to be quoted by name, suggested that the persistence of the earlier start time for high school had to do with accommodating after-school activities, especially sports, so they don’t run too late. Most high school students ride SEPTA, which last week unveiled a new student fare card that will allow them to use public transportation until 8 p.m. on weekdays.

Bell schedules are set under a process outlined in the contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which specifies that teacher rosters and work hours are supposed to be finalized by the end of the prior school year. Principals and the PFT building committees in each school must agree on a bell schedule by May 25, within certain parameters. Typically, they informed the district, which incorporated those decisions into its transportation schedule. A joint district-PFT committee reviews disputes and resolves issues where the proposed schedules are not workable. 

This year, citing the need to plan for potential transportation problems, the district limited schools to one of the three preferred start times — which required many changes and set off negotiations that has prolonged the process until weeks before school is scheduled to start.

 ”If they wanted to do this, they should have started discussions in March,” said the principal. “So many families have to totally rethink child care.”

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Hillary Linardopoulos, a PFT spokesperson, said Monday that the district’s effort to standardize schedules “made it more difficult for people to navigate,” and said the joint district-union committee was working on more disputes than usual. There are issues still to be resolved “in a few schools.” 

Overall, she said, the union “recognizes the reality of transportation concerns,” but said that “starting high school at the crack of dawn is not the most educationally sound decision.” 

In the Friday letter to parents, Chief of Schools Evelyn Nuñez said that at the online public forums parents could learn “about the reasons for this change, its benefits to students and families, and the resources in place to support you through the transition.” The letter contains links where parents and community members can sign up for the forums.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, most high schools in Philadelphia began between 8 and 9 a.m. And as classes moved online last year, most schools shifted their start times later, not earlier.

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