Lucas Gage arrives by bus for the first day of in-person kindergarten at Richmond Elementary on Tuesday, March 2. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Megan Kamna thought she had a plan for her daughter’s after school care in the fall.

Her five-year-old starts kindergarten at Cummings Elementary School in Keizer.

Kamna, who works as an independent contractor, is still at work when school gets out for the day, and her husband works a graveyard shift and often sleeps in the afternoon. She’d planned for her son, who will be in seventh grade, to take care of his sister until she got home.

But under a new schedule announced last week, her son will get out of school almost two hours later than her daughter.

On June 7, Salem-Keizer School District administrators announced a change to the bell schedules for nearly all district schools, flipping elementary and secondary start times to allow older kids to begin school later.

Most district elementary schools will now begin class at 7:50 a.m. and end at 2:20 p.m.

Middle schools will mostly run from 9:20 a.m. to 4 p.m., and high schools from 8:30 a.m. to 3:20 p.m.

In addition, all district schools will start one hour later every Wednesday to give teachers and school staff professional development time.

Before the pandemic, local elementary schools typically began classes between 9 and 9:30 a.m., with middle and high schools starting and ending earlier.

Kamna said without family in the area who can watch her daughter after school, she’ll have to keep her son enrolled in the district’s online middle school program so he’ll be home to take care of his sister.

“There’s a lot of single parents out there who have multiple ages of children and they’re kind of depending on having their oldest watching the littles so they can do what they have to do to support their families,” she said.

District administrators said they’ve considered a schedule change for several years. But they didn’t survey parents on the specific start times under consideration for the fall of 2021 or release a draft proposal prior to making the change.

The change was motivated by research showing teens get more sleep and have better grades and attendance when high school starts later in the morning.

Olga Cobb, an assistant superintendent, said starting school later for older students came up repeatedly when district leaders sought feedback on improving schools from parents in late 2019 and early 2020. That feedback, through in-person meetings and surveys, was part of a district effort to determine how to best spend additional state grant funds to improve student academic performance and mental health.

A 2019 district survey of high school students also found a later start time was high on the list of suggestions for improving school.

Because bus drivers drive routes for multiple schools, starting middle and high school later means elementary school needs to start earlier. That allows drivers to complete a route for elementary school, then pick up older students.

Cobb said the school schedule changes made to allow part-time, in-person classes to resume this spring showed district leaders that earlier start times would work for elementary schools.

To accommodate health guidelines requiring fewer students on a bus at one time, local schools staggered elementary school start times, with about half starting at 8 a.m. and the other half at 10:30 a.m. Some principals feared attendance would be worse at schools starting earlier, but that didn’t happen, Cobb said.

“They came and they were alert and ready to learn,” Cobb said.

Many frustrated parents took to the district’s Facebook page and emailed comments seeking an explanation for why they weren't asked about the change in advance.

“I have never received a survey or been asked what works for us. It’s not acceptable to say this is helping families or children district wide when the parents have not had a voice. This same messaging was used when the schools returned to a reduced schedule in the spring with terrible hours and no time for parents to prepare for a mid morning start time of 10:30am,” one parent wrote in an email.

Like Kamna, Eva Johnson had relied on her middle and high school-aged kids to pick up her youngest kids at Hammond Elementary and look after them until she gets off work.

“By not being informed around the discussion I feel completely lost because now, I have to figure out another situation with my place of employment because of the new times issues. My children's bell schedule changing without any extra information or even by asking is just the cherry on top of the last two school years being chaotic and painful,” Johnson wrote.

Suzanne West, Salem-Keizer’s director of elementary curriculum and instruction, said she understands why some parents felt left out of the loop.

“We were out of time. If we were going to make this transition, we knew we needed to tell parents before kids went home for the summer. And we just had a compressed timeline so I'll just be super honest that that was part of what factored into what probably feels like hastiness to some of our families,” West said. “To us, this is a multi-year conversation, so it feels like the culmination of a long marathon, but I understand that perspective.”

Not all feedback has been negative. When announcing the change, district leaders said parents with questions should contact their local schools. Most of those calls, Cobb said, have been seeking logistical information about how pick up and drop off will work, rather than complaints.

West said the feedback from high school students has also been positive. A handful of Facebook comments and emails received by the district and provided to Salem Reporter were also in support.

Nathan Tesfu, a Sprague High School student, emailed Superintendent Christy Perry to thank her for the change.

“I had advanced/honors classes and since I had to stay up late the night before finishing up homework, I was tired throughout the day. I am also a student athlete and the lack of sleep made it very hard for me to have energy to push through practices and games. Having a later start to school will not just help me and my peers get more sleep, but it will also help us have the ability to be prepared and excited for a new day of school,” Tesfu wrote.

Alena Heidecke, whose son is a first-grader at Harritt Elementary School in west Salem, said she has to be at her job by 8:30 a.m. at the latest. That was harder when her son’s school didn’t start until after 9 a.m.

Now, “I can be with him at the bus stop and then get to work at a decent time which makes the rest of the day go that much smoother,” she said.

Cobb said she understands the child care concerns, but said the district frequently received complaints about challenges with morning child care under the older schedule, when the youngest students often didn’t begin class until well after their parents were at work and older siblings were at school.

Schools are now talking to local child care providers who offer after school programs to figure out what care they can provide for families. But Cobb and West said those plans won’t be finalized until later in the summer, in part because care providers remain uncertain about what Covid protocols they may have to follow in the fall.

The Boys & Girls Club of Salem, a major provider of after school care in the area, will open clubs earlier so elementary school students have somewhere to go once school gets out, executive director Sue Bloom said.

Cobb said families with questions or concerns about child care should contact their school principal, who can help them figure out a solution.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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