Howard County high school students will be able to sleep in for at least 35 more minutes next school year after the board voted to push back school day start times.

The decision to start school at 8 a.m., instead of 7:25 a.m., has been nearly two years in the making. At the beginning of the pandemic, Howard County school times were adjusted for virtual learning. When in-person learning resumed, the school day started 20 minutes later than it did prior to the pandemic, according to the system. That’s when discussions on a new schedule started.

Research shows later school start times can help teenagers get the 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep they need. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, teens who get enough sleep are at lower risk for obesity, depression and drowsiness. Proper sleep can also improve academic outcomes and overall quality of life.

The board approved the change at its Thursday meeting. Board chair Antonia Watts said at the time she almost burst into tears.

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“We have taken a step, a significant step, in the right direction to follow the science, to do what’s best for students,” she said at the meeting. “I’m excited that we are at the forefront of what’s becoming a national movement.”

In an interview, Watts said this move makes Howard County a district with one of the latest high school start times.

Anne Arundel County Public Schools implemented later start times this school year. High schools start at 8:30 a.m., middle schools between 8:30 and 9:15 a.m., and elementary schools between 8 and 9 a.m.

Bell times changed for 93 of the 164 public schools and programs in Baltimore City as well, although some schools still start as early as 7:30 a.m. It was to improve transportation for those who take school buses to school. Baltimore County high schools mostly start at 7:45 a.m.

District leaders in Howard County had to modify school bus routes and address a bus driver shortage in order to change the bell schedule. With the help of a consulting firm, the system’s transportation office landed on a three-tier system of staggered start times, with elementary and middle schools starting at either 8:40 a.m. or 9:15 a.m. The system said some schools may start slightly earlier or later, and that parents will get more details in the spring.

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Watts said she’s confident that the transition will be successful, although she acknowledges there will be bumps along the way. She’s seen a mix of opinions, including those who would rather stick to the current schedule. However, there’s been “overwhelming support” from parents, teachers and students for later start times, she said.

Fellow board member Linfeng Chen questioned if there would be a chance for any wiggle room once the plan was implemented. He said schools like Hammond middle and elementary schools are in the same lot and tier, which could make for crowded lots and traffic during pick-up and drop-off times.

Brian Nevin, director of student transportation, said changing tiers is “not something that’s possible” since it could lead to a domino effect of other changes. However, Scott Washington, the school system’s chief operating officer, said district leaders will provide progress reports throughout next school year.

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