How changing bell times are affecting school transportation

how changing bell times impact school transportationWhen schools alter bell schedules, they don’t just change when students arrive at school, switch classes, eat lunch and head home for the day. Instead, changing bell times affect students, parents and guardians, teachers, and transportation providers in a variety of ways. 

In this article, we’ll examine the impact that changing bell times are having on school transportation operations. We’ll also highlight some best practices and solutions that can help to mitigate some of the downsides of modified school schedules.

Understanding the basics of changing bell schedules

Bell schedules don’t just affect students. Communities and cities — and entire economies — are built around students attending school at certain times. Workdays for many parents and guardians, for instance, begin after the school day commences. 

But that’s only the beginning of the ongoing balancing act between school districts, businesses, parents/guardians and other organizations involved in supporting the needs of students, including social service agencies and nonprofit organizations. 

If schools for different age groups were to start at the same time, it would be nearly impossible to get all children to school on time. On the other hand, staggered school start times present a whole other set of complications. 

Adjustments to school start times also affect students’ abilities to get to extracurricular activities and appointments, including those outlined by individualized education programs (IEPs). 

Why are school districts changing bell times?

School bell schedules are changing for a variety of reasons. Pressure from the community, legislation and the ongoing bus driver shortage are all contributing factors. 

Many school districts are staggering bus schedules in an effort to get more children to school using the too-few school bus drivers they have on staff. The hope? That by tinkering with bell schedules, they can get the same number of students to the same number of schools without reducing routes. 

When it comes to changing school schedules, however, too-early start times are considered problematic. Studies show that when students start school earlier, they miss out on the sleep they need. This is especially relevant for high school students. In fact, The American Academy of Pediatrics has deemed insufficient sleep in adolescents to be a public health issue, and has recommended that middle and high schools start the school day no earlier than 8:30 a.m. 

In California, school districts started the 2022–2023 school year with mandated later school start times thanks to Senate Bill No. 328, which was passed in 2019 (and which districts had three years to implement). Districts and students are already well aware of the challenges these changes present. In an article published by EdSource, older students report that later school start times have made it impossible for them to arrive on time for and maintain part-time, after-school jobs. 

But that’s not the only concern. When schools push start times later, parents and guardians who previously transported their children to school may no longer be able to do so. If bell schedules no longer align with workdays, families who weren’t doing so before may now have to rely on the already overwhelmed school bus system to get their kids to and from school.

Most school districts cannot accommodate an increased demand for school buses. Districts are already doing everything they can to alleviate the bus driver shortage. But with the most populous school districts needing to get so many students to school, these districts may ask bus drivers to drive more than one route each morning — even to the same school. 

The results of changing bell times

Though the intentions behind the newly implemented bill in California were undoubtedly good, the results thus far have been mixed. The opportunity to start the school day later is greatly appreciated by some students; others, however, indicate that later school start times have caused conflicts with their extracurricular activities and transportation.

Some detractors believe that pushing school start times back will lead to students settling down to do their homework later each day, which could mean that the promise of “more sleep” won’t materialize.

Though the school day may be starting later, the length of it isn’t likely to diminish, which means students are still likely to be stretched thin — and short on sleep.

Changing bell schedules affect vulnerable students the most

Unfortunately, the fallout of shifting school schedules will likely affect vulnerable students the most. That’s because changing bell schedules directly impact the accessibility and availability of school transportation. And school transportation challenges almost always disproportionately impact students who are already experiencing educational inequities.

All students deserve a safe, reliable way to get to and from school. Study after study confirms that when students get to school quickly and without unnecessary stress, they’re more likely to stay enrolled at their school of origin and graduate. By adding additional logistical challenges to an already overburdened transportation system, changing bell times are likely to negatively impact the students who require the most assistance.

Without parents who have flexible work schedules, access to resources like carpooling, or the ability to walk or bike to school safely, these students may struggle to get to school regularly. Studies show that chronic absenteeism — which is already a top concern for students in vulnerable groups — leads to learning loss that can be difficult to reverse.

This doesn’t mean that changing bell schedules are inherently bad. Most communities, legislators and school districts that implement them have done so thoughtfully — and with awareness of the complications that are sure to accompany these changes.

Still, school districts must create actionable, realistic plans to ensure their most at-risk students do not incur yet another roadblock to educational equity.

Changing bell times: best practices 

Make sure all students have access to reliable transportation

There is no one solution that will solve every issue that arises, or is amplified by, changing school start times. But there is one main thing school districts can and should do when altering school schedules: Verify that every student has a way to get to and from school safely, and on time, every day. 

Consider partnering with alternative school transportation providers

Innovative school transportation solutions like HopSkipDrive — which supplements the traditional yellow bus model — can be a cost-effective, safe and efficient option for school districts looking to solve a variety of transportation challenges.

Keep a close eye on chronically absent students

When making transportation arrangements for students that are impacted by changing bell times, school districts can also keep an eye out not only for students who are missing too many school days but also for those who may be at risk of becoming chronically absent. Remember: The best way to prevent chronic absenteeism is to anticipate it. 

Take advantage of all available resources

There are also, of course, resources — including federal funding — earmarked for certain students, including those experiencing homelessness. School districts should ensure they know how to access these funds and arrange the transportation these students need swiftly. Early intervention can help get students to school every day and keep them where they belong: in the classroom. 

No matter when the school bell rings, one thing’s for sure: Every student deserves equitable access to education. Reliable transportation is one way to help ensure that all students are able to show up and take advantage of the education and extracurricular activities that are available to them in their community.

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