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RPS families petition to adopt new start times sooner

As of Monday, the online petition had more than 200 signatures. The petition includes dozens of comments, urging the decision forward.

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The Rochester School Board recently agreed to change the start times for schools, but a group of community members has started a petition to make the change sooner than the board had planned.

The board approved the change in mid-November , but it is not scheduled to take effect until the 2022-23 school year. The petition is asking the board to revisit the issue , and initiate the change a year earlier.

As of Monday, the online petition had more than 200 signatures. The petition includes dozens of comments, urging the decision forward.

The creator of the petition, Mali Doles, said that a silver lining from distance learning is that it has allowed students a little extra sleep, giving them a sneak peak of the benefits to come with a later start time.

"Many of our students are thriving physically and emotionally with more sleep this year. Please let this continue, and implement the new bell times for next year!" Doles wrote. "There is no reason to wait – let's reap the benefits of more sleep for our students in 2021-2022."

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Doles was not alone. There has been no shortage of people advocating for the change.

Denise Fogarty is the mother of two students at Mayo High School. She said she's been an advocate of changing the start times ever since her now-senior in high school was in the sixth grade. Fogarty wrote in an email about how her daughter would become anxious when she couldn't fall asleep by "10 or even 11 at night" and how she would have to watch her daughter go "bleary-eyed to the bus at 6:38 a.m."

"This has been a long time coming, and I really don’t think RPS should wait another year to implement (it)," Fogarty wrote.

Some students are also advocating for the change.

Ignacio Michelena is a senior at Mayo High School. He's also a team captain on the school's swim team. He's perfectly aware of the data supporting the change. As a student athlete, however, he's also personally aware of how beneficial later start times would be for many students.

"I know a lot of my friends, myself included, aren't usually that hungry in the morning. In fact, we're a little nauseous. So going to school not having eaten definitely puts a damper on your energy levels. So, waking up a little later does give you a chance to eat."

According to the new schedule the school board approved, the school day will last from 8:20 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. for high school students, from 8:20 a.m. to 3 p.m. for middle school students, and from 9:35 a.m. to 4 p.m. for elementary school students.

Prior to the pandemic, school would have started at either 9:05 or 9:10 a.m. for elementary students, depending on the building. And, it would have started at 7:40 a.m. for middle school and high school students.

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During the board's discussion on the issue, members said it's a topic the district has been talking about for decades.

RPS parent Bjorg Thorsteinsdottir said the board's decision is already a little too late. She said she's known families who have lost children to suicide. While she didn't attribute early morning start times directly to suicide, Thorsteinsdottir pointed to studies that have shown a connection between sleep depravation and suicidal ideation.

"It would mean the world to us," Thorsteinsdottir said about having later start times. "I noticed a distinct difference in our oldest's emotional well-being when he went from elementary school to middle school and had to start waking up at 6 o'clock in the morning to catch the school bus."

The reason for the delayed implementation of the start times is because the district is in the process of constructing two new schools. District administrators said implementing the change next year would require the district to redraw its bus routes twice: once for the implementation of the new start times in 2021-22 and again when the new schools came online in 2022-23. Rather than doing that, the board decided to delay the implementation of the new times.

Even though the school board approved the decision unanimously on Nov. 17, there was some hesitation leading up to the final vote. During the meeting, the board considered a resolution that would have initiated the new start times in 2021-22. Toward the end of the meeting, the board voted to amend the resolution, pushing the change of start times back a year to 2022-23. That vote to change the resolution was split 4-3, with board members Melissa Amundsen, Cathy Nathan, and Julie Workman voting against the proposal to move the change back a year.

"I can see advantages of waiting a year, but on the other hand, I feel like there's a lot of families that have been very anxiously awaiting our decision," Amundsen said during the board meeting on Nov. 17. "I'm hesitant to delay it a year."

Nathan said that while she didn't support delaying the change by a year, she did want to see some progress on the topic. She said that's why she voted against amending the resolution, but in favor of the resolution's end form.

Two of the board members who voted in favor of pushing the change back a year are in the last year of their term. Because of that, Doles said she would like the board to revisit the issue in January when there are two new board members at the table.

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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