By Ryan Dailey, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — School officials will soon be gearing up to push back start times for many high schools under a new law that mandates changes to the beginning of the school day — but some lawmakers and education experts are wary of the challenges that could come with such a change.
The changes stem from a measure (HB 733) approved by the Legislature earlier this month and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis days later. Under the law, which goes into effect in July, middle schools will be prevented from beginning the “instructional day” earlier than 8 a.m., while high schools will be barred from starting the school day before 8:30 a.m.
High schools will experience the most significant changes. About 48 percent of Florida’s public high schools start school before 7:30 a.m., according to the Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.
Senate bill sponsor Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, and other supporters of the measure touted the mandate as a way to help students get more sleep before the school day begins.
“This is one of those pieces of legislation where we understand the ‘why’ very well. Studies, medical science, has shown that this is what’s best. What we’re doing now is not what’s best for our kids. For the adolescents especially,” Burgess said during a May 4 Senate debate on the proposal.
As the bill advanced, Rep. Bruce Antone, D-Orlando, repeatedly raised concerns about increased costs and other challenges for school districts. In a recent interview with The News Service of Florida, Antone commended the idea of trying to ensure students get more sleep. But he also questioned whether imposing start times on districts throughout the state was “well-thought out.”
“It was just something that sounded like a great idea,” Antone said. “And then they were like, we’re going to pass it and y’all are going to figure it out.”
Antone represents an area that includes one of Florida’s largest school districts, Orange County Public Schools. Antone told the News Service that a one-size-fits-all approach could put an outsized strain on Orange and other large districts.
“It puts some hard start times in place. And even though it gives the school districts until 2026 to begin implementing the plan, I’m not sure this bill should be dictating what’s best for Orange County Schools, what’s best for Miami-Dade, what’s best for Broward, Palm Beach, Duval,” Antone said.
The measure includes what Burgess described as a “three-year glide path,” giving districts until July of 2026 to implement the changes.
Lawmakers also during the 2023 legislative session earmarked $5 million to help implement the start-time changes, including a requirement that the state Department of Education survey “six department-selected school superintendents which represent two small, two medium, and two large counties regarding the estimated costs to implement such school start times.”
But Antone warned the changes could lead to much larger costs. For example, the later start times could force Orange and other large districts to purchase more school buses and hire additional bus drivers.
“That money begins to add up to potentially easily $100 (million), $200 million dollars,” Antone said.
Chris Doolin, a lobbyist who represents the Small School District Council Consortium, also raised concerns about the bill’s potential impacts on small districts. As an example, Doolin argued that shifting the order of different grade levels’ start times could pose safety concerns.
“Right off the bat, you’re going to have elementary and younger kids at the side of the road at bus stops earlier, and there’s a safety concern there,” Doolin told the News Service.
Another sticking point about the bill, for Doolin, is its potential effect on families’ work schedules.
People in rural Holmes County, for example, largely are employed by state prisons, the county or the school district, according to Doolin. He pointed to rural Holmes County.
“You’ve got the prison system, you’ve got the county workforce and you’ve got the school workforce. Now, all those work schedules, I would say the majority, start at 8 o’clock (a.m.),” Doolin said.
Doolin also raised questions about how the changes would affect extracurricular activities such as sports, particularly in rural communities where, “county to county,” it would “take time to get kids to where they need to be.”
And Antone and Doolin both noted that some high-school students have after-school jobs.
At least two large districts already have studied the issue of changing start times.
In 2019, Orange County’s district sought community input on potential plans to change start-times. The district, which begins the day at 7:20 a.m for high schools and at 9:30 a.m. for middle schools, presented three plans for alternate start times.
The district received tens of thousands of responses, the bulk of which came from parents and guardians. Of the options presented to respondents, only one would have complied with the new law. “Model D,” as it was called, proposed starting high schools’ days at 8:45 a.m. and middle schools at 10:15 a.m.
Survey results showed that 67 percent of respondents opposed the plan, according to a district spokesman.
Sen. Clay Yarborough, R-Jacksonville, voted for the bill but pointed out that his home school district in Duval County also previously declined to change its start times.
“Duval County had looked at doing this a few years back, and then opted not to change some of the start times. There’s a big impact on transportation, obviously on families if they have multiple siblings especially in different grade levels,” Yarborough said during the May 4 floor debate.
The bill also requires school districts to inform local communities “about the health, safety, and academic impacts of sleep deprivation on middle school and high school students and the benefits of a later school start time and discuss local strategies” to implement the new start-times.
Sen. Tracie Davis, a Jacksonville Democrat, said she appreciated the three-year period for implementation, but added that her reservation about the bill centered on not taking community input prior to putting the changes in place.
“I appreciate the fact that you have given a three-year period for school districts to talk about it with all of those stakeholders. The challenge I have for that is, I wish we would do that first before we actually made it a bill that we’re voting on to put it in law,” Davis said.
Burgess acknowledged his colleagues’ concerns, saying “change can be hard.” But he said his service in the U.S. Army Reserves influenced his approach to the legislation.
“If we don’t put out our command intent, and say, ‘We’re getting to yes,’ and we’re doing it by this date, then these things never come to fruition,” Burgess said. “So what we’ve done here is laid out the command intent. And we’re giving a three-year glide path to get to yes.”
The reporting requirements over the next three years will “ensure that we’re uncovering any potential landmines, pitfalls, or holes that we need to look to plug,” he said.