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July 15, 2021

Philly schools finalize new bell schedule with more than 3 start times

Most high schools will begin class at 7:30 a.m. despite research showing teenagers should not report before 8:30 a.m.

Education Schools
Philly schools start times Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

The School District of Philadelphia released a finalized list of start times for the 2021-22 academic year. The plan calls for most schools starting at one of three times: 7:30 a.m., 8:15 a.m. or 9 a.m.

Many parents were left confused and upset when the School District of Philadelphia posted an incomplete list of new start times for the upcoming academic year on its website last week. By Monday afternoon, that list had been taken down. 

On Thursday, the district gave it another shot, publishing a "revised" schedule that spans the Academy at Palumbo to William H. Ziegler Elementary School. District spokesperson Monica M. Lewis confirmed to PhillyVoice that the revised list is final.

The district initially planned to cut 28 start times down to three tiers — 7:30 a.m., 8:15 am. and 9 a.m. The vast majority of schools will begin at one of those three times. But the final schedule shows 25 schools starting at six other times, including 7:45 a.m., 8 a.m., 8:30 a.m. and 8:45 a.m.

"Some schools may have needed times outside of the three start times," Lewis told PhillyVoice. "Proposed schedules were reviewed on a case-by-case basis by the district's transportation services."

The schedule shows 62 schools beginning at 7:30 a.m. Another 74 schools will begin at 8:15 and 76 others will start at 9 a.m. The majority of the district's high schools are slated for a 7:30 a.m. start, but 23 will start later. 

Speaking to parents during a virtual forum Wednesday morning, Chief of Schools Evelyn Nuñez said "a handful of high schools" will have different start times "for a variety of reasons" but did not elaborate on those reasons. 

The early start conflicts with guidelines from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommend both middle and high school students begin classes at 8:30 a.m. or later to benefit their physical and mental health, safety and academic achievement.

The district's long-term goal, "is to transition to a schedule across schools that reflect what science clearly indicates is best for student learning," said Danielle Floyd, the general manager of transportation. 

She and Nuñez both said the district will be seeking feedback from the community as the new bell schedule is implemented. The district will begin preparing a plan for the 2022-23 academic year at the end of September.

According to Nuñez, the district was developing a tiered bell schedule before the COVID-19 pandemic upended in-person learning in 2020. Amid a "critical" driver shortage due to resignations and retirements, Nuñez said operating with only three start times best meets "the educational (and) social/emotional needs of all of our students while efficiently addressing our operating needs."

"The district realized that we simply did not have the personnel to operate at pre-pandemic levels without significantly increasing the ride times for students," she added.

Still, many parents who attended voiced frustrations about the plan creating problems for parents who start work at 9 a.m. and the fact that most students bused by the district don't attend its schools.

A majority of the 41,000 students transported by the district attend charter and private schools. Only 13,580 of those students attend district schools, according Floyd.

The district is required by law to transport students in grades 1-6 who live more than 1.5 miles away from the schools they attend, Floyd said. For students in grades 7-12, the district provides a SEPTA fare card. Beginning this year, it will allow up to eight taps per school day to board buses, trolleys and subways between 5:30 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Pennsylvania law does not require school districts to provide transportation to its students. If districts provide transportation, state law says they must provide the same services to students who attend private schools. Districts are also required by law to transport eligible charter school students.

Some families also voiced concerns about needing high school students to drop off siblings who are in elementary school, Nuñez said, which wouldn't be possible if they're already in class. Nuñez said the district is working to determine where expanded before- and after-school programs are needed.

"You will be getting more information about the before- and after-school programming that will be offered in the various schools directly from your school leaders," she told parents. "That information should be coming in August in terms of what is going to be offered at the school."

Nuñez said the district has been working "very closely" with principals to form the new three-tier bell schedule. However, Robin Cooper, president of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, told WHYY last week that the principals' union had been left out of discussions.

"The district is unilaterally making this decision and principals are expected to carry it out, and it creates an atmosphere of distrust between communities and those school leaders," said Cooper, whose union circulated a "no-confidence" petition against Superintendent William Hite last September.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, told PhillyVoice that the district's approach to the schedule change "flies in the face of their past practice," which has resulted in "much confusion."

"Instead of approaching it at the school level, they took a district-wide approach," Jordan said. "... We had a very short time to turn information around to building representatives, though we certainly did so. We worked to ensure that disputes were heard and navigated by the joint SDP/PFT committee in a timely and fair manner, and in fact we are still working to address concerns that are arising with individual schools."

The district has scheduled an additional virtual forum on the schedule change for 5 p.m. July 21.