July 2, 2022

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Ongoing transportation issues prompt Seattle Schools to propose new start times

Seattle Public Schools officials are proposing three different start times for schools next school year in an effort to ease an ongoing transportation issue caused by a nationwide bus driver shortage.  

Under the proposal, which would take effect this fall, most elementary and high school students would start nearly a half-hour earlier while most middle school students and those attending K-8 schools would fall under later start times.

But the proposed changes are prompting concerns from Seattle families worried about adjustments needed to accommodate new start times, like child care and after-school programs, as well as safety concerns for young students waiting for buses in the dark during winter.

The board is expected to vote on the changes May 18.

“We are bringing this forward because we have a problem with our ability to be able to offer consistent and predictable transportation to our families,” Ashley Davies, executive director of operations, said during an April 21 committee meeting.

Davies, who said officials are hearing from families nearly daily about unreliable transportation, said the district’s approach is from a “systems perspective” to mitigate and navigate challenges.

The district cut 142 bus routes in October because of driver shortages. Thousands of families had to scramble to get children to school and in some cases, students were late for class because the shortages caused bus delays. 

While some routes were brought back, there are still nearly 50 routes that aren’t running and won’t be restored by the end of the school year, according to district officials.

About 20% (10,781 students) of Seattle students are eligible for transportation services, according to district spokesperson Tim Robinson. 

The long-running issue has meant some eligible families haven’t been able to access bus services, Davies said, and if that doesn’t change, the district could lose state funding for transportation. If Seattle doesn’t return to three start times, about 50 routes will need to be slashed or there will continue to be bus delays of up to two hours.

Changing start times will allow Seattle Schools to cut 70 of its 364 buses and will save the district at least $5 million, Davies said. Currently, the district spends $3,306 per student on transportation, higher than any other district in the state and more than three times the national average. 

However, the savings won’t make a huge dent in the district’s more than $1 billion budget, said Vivian van Gelder, advocacy and policy manager for Southeast Seattle Education Coalition. 

First Student has been a longtime transportation provider with the district, which currently has a $40 million contract with the bus company. But in February, Seattle abruptly canceled First Student’s bid to renew a contract one week after a state investigation revealed more than 600 safety violations by the company.

In the 2017-18 school year, Seattle changed its bell schedule from three start times to two so teens could come to school later — as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. At the time board members called the vote a historic moment that would lead to a trend of later start times for high school students, which has been backed by sleep scientists and teachers.

But the schedule changes in the 2017-18 school year dramatically worsened existing transportation issues. The incidents when buses were delayed or didn’t show up increased by 833% over two years. Having two start times instead of three gave bus drivers less time to finish their routes, and they could only manage one route without delaying the next. The result: More drivers were needed.

The three new start times proposed are 7:30 a.m., 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. Currently, bell times are 7:55 a.m. and 8:55 a.m. 

If the proposal passes, the majority of elementary schools will start at 7:30 a.m., although some are scheduled to start at 8:30 a.m. or 9:30 a.m. All high schools and some middle schools will start at 8:30 a.m., and a mix of elementary, middle and K-8 schools will begin at 9:30 a.m.

High schoolers would start 25 minutes earlier than they do currently — a concern for families, Davies said. But a 9:30 a.m. start time for high school students, she said, would interfere with after-school sports and other activities. 

Davies also acknowledged the changes could be difficult for staff at schools with the earliest proposed start time.

Jessica Swanson has a third grader at Kimball Elementary who would have to go to school at 7:30 a.m. next school year if the proposed bell times are approved.

“We’re not looking forward to being in the dark sitting out there in the cold waiting for the bus,” Swanson said. “It’s an inconvenience for sure.”

West Seattle parent Aimee Riordan said she would like to see Seattle Schools take a different approach to address transportation issues that won’t affect student schedules. 

The last time the district changed start times, the change was based on the science that students would benefit from more sleep, said Riordan. “Having school start so early for the purpose of transportation-related adjustments seems like bad policy and bad precedent.”

Seattle Schools officials have also heard concerns from parents about child care. Schedule changes could increase child care needs and after-school programs would need to be adjusted. Many older students also care for their younger siblings, and different dismissal times could complicate that.

But the changes could have benefits, Davies said. With this new model, all students eligible for transportation would be served and there is potential for buses to be used for other activities. Bus drivers would also be paid more and have the opportunity for more hours.

It’s unclear how much more bus drivers would make if new start times are approved by the board. Seattle Schools declined requests for interviews. 

For a list of proposed bell schedules go to seattleschools.org/resources/bell-schedules.