What time will the opening and closing bells ring at schools across Boston next fall?
According to school officials, who are working with a team of MIT researchers to redesign school schedules — the same researchers who helped develop new bus routes this fall — there are 1.8 octodecillion possibilities. That’s nearly three times the estimated number of grains of sand in the world, according to school officials.
“It’s a very complicated puzzle,” said John Hanlon, the school system’s chief of operations, noting that changing school start times has huge ripple effects on the deployment of buses.
The potential changes, more than 18 months in the making, aim to remedy two big problems. First, a mid-morning start at dozens of elementary and K-8 schools pushes dismissal time to after 4 p.m., putting buses on the road at the height of rush hour while also forcing young students to walk home in the dark.
At the other end of the spectrum, bleary-eyed teenagers are arriving to high school just after daybreak. Yet a growing body of research indicates that teenagers should be sleeping in because the changing biology of their bodies pushes the start of their natural sleep cycle to 11 p.m. or later, making it difficult for them to get at least eight hours of requisite shut-eye.
So does that ultimately mean the school system will create earlier start times for younger students and let older students arrive at later?
School officials are keeping mum, saying only that they will unveil the answer at Wednesday night’s School Committee meeting, where they plan to introduce a policy recommendation that will drive the changes to school start times.
And don’t expect the policy recommendation to include any information about start times for specific schools. The School Department doesn’t plan to announce that information until Dec. 7, the day after the School Committee is expected to vote on the overarching policy.
“We feel we have a robust sense of what each school is looking for,” said Hanlon, noting that about 16,000 parents, teachers, and students have responded to surveys over the past several months on school start times.
Many parents who have been pushing for changes to school start times say they are hopeful their concerns will be addressed. If Boston does start high school later, it will join a small but growing number of school systems in Massachusetts that have moved in that direction.
“There is a whole myriad of benefits for teenagers, including less depression and anxiety,” said Deb Putnam, Boston chapter leader of Start School Later, a national organization. “And students eat better because they have time for breakfast.”
Putnam knows firsthand the drawbacks of starting high school classes early: She sees how sleepy her son is when he departs for Boston Latin Academy, where the opening bell sounds at 7:20 a.m.
But she says her son disagrees with her assessment. He likes the early start because it means he gets most of the afternoon to do what he wants.
It is unlikely that every student, parent, and teacher will be happy with the new start times. The surveys done by the school system indicate that the most desired start times fall between 8 and 8:30 a.m., but there is often no consensus at individual schools.
Furthermore, the school system does not have enough buses and money for all schools to start within the same window of time, especially since it is also responsible for busing students to private and charter schools.
Currently, most of the 125 city-run schools begin their days around 7:30 a.m., 8:30 a.m., and 9:30 a.m. Changing those start times would also mean redrawing its bus routes again, a big chore that can lead to some initial delays in buses reaching their schools as the kinks in new routes get ironed out.
The routes that premiered this fall with MIT’s help have largely been underperforming last fall’s on-time record.
Boston initially was going to try to change start times at many elementary and K-8 schools this fall, but abruptly put the brakes on the proposal last December.
Rowena Tuttle, a parent at the Josiah Quincy Elementary School in Chinatown, which begins classes at 9:30 a.m., said an earlier start would help get students home more quickly before the heaviest rush-hour traffic chokes the downtown area.
But she said she wouldn’t want school to start too early because it could put before-school programs, such as an orchestra program, in jeopardy.
Hanlon said the school system would work with individual schools on adjusting any before- or after-school programs.
Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said her members support any change to start times that is developmentally appropriate for young children and teenagers.
“As educators, we support changes that take into consideration the needs of students and what we know from research about child development,” she said. “For example, we believe increasing the number of elementary schools with early start times would be in the best interest of our students. We also hope any changes are done equitably and with the input of those affected.”James Vaznis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.