Why Escambia County families are worried over ‘drastic’ changes to school start times

Pensacola News Journal | By Madison Arnold | July 27, 2021

Many families in the Escambia County School District are scrambling to make schedule changes as they adjust to new school start times recently released by the district.

The district changed start times at 44 schools — including all 32 of its elementary schools — to account for a bus driver shortage. Many start times are shifted back, but 14 elementary schools will start classes earlier than usual, including 10 that will start 35 minutes earlier.

Moms like Elizabeth MacWhinnie, whose daughter is among the students who will now start class 35 minutes earlier, are worried about the disruptions that could create for families. For 7-year-old Ruby MacWhinnie to arrive on time to class at McArthur Elementary School next school year, the family will have to leave home no later than 6:45 a.m., meaning bedtime likely will need to be earlier.

“We’ll have to work really hard for it not to affect my daughter’s health. A kid that age needs so much sleep, and she’s never been one that can go to bed at 7 in the evening,” MacWhinnie said, adding that Ruby gets headaches if she doesn’t sleep enough. “It’s better to, of course, try to wear her out and all that sort of thing but 7, 7:30 is just too crazy early to put her to bed. Plus, I like my kid. I don’t want to put her to bed that early. Evenings is family time.”

Elizabeth MacWhinnie looks on as her daughter, Ruby, works on a reading project at the family home Monday. The MacWhinnies are worried that starting school 35 minutes earlier will have a negative affect on their family.
Elizabeth MacWhinnie looks on as her daughter, Ruby, works on a reading project at the family home Monday. The MacWhinnies are worried that starting school 36 minutes earlier will have a negative effect on their family. Tony Giberson, Pensacola News Journal

Bus driver shortage is behind start times change

The school district expects that it will need to transport between 20% and 30% more students this year at the same time that it needs to hire another 40 to 100 bus drivers.

To adjust for that, district staff had to reorganize the previous three-tier start time system into four tiers. Now, instead of a bus driver taking one elementary, one middle and one high school route, many will have to take two elementary routes, as well as one at each of the other levels.

While MacWhinnie said she’s fortunate to have a remote job that allows her to take her kids to school, she knows a lot of other parents with less flexible jobs might struggle. She’s also concerned schools like McArthur that the district chose to push earlier are Title 1 schools, or schools with economically-disadvantaged students.

“I love McArthur. It’s a great school. It is a Title 1 school, which means we have a lot of parents who aren’t like me who have this (cushy) job or even no job (or) with one of the parents who can be more flexible in this kind of crazy schedule. And they’re going to have more difficulty at 1:25 p.m. (dismissal),” MacWhinnie said. “I am concerned about which schools were picked for this because I don’t see why a Title 1 was picked.”

Assistant Superintendent for Operations Shawn Dennis said aspects like whether schools were Title 1 didn’t factor into creating the new schedules and routes. He said many Title 1 schools are in more densely populated areas of the county with compact routes that are easier to manage in a shorter window of time.

“Basically what we’re doing when we change start times is we’re creating an additional window,” Dennis said. “We’ve got to figure out ‘OK, where’s that bus going? Where’s it coming off of when it drops? Where is the next location for its first stop? How long does it take to run that route? Is it moving further away from the school that we’re trying to get it to or closer to it?’ There’s a whole lot of moving parts to it. It’s very complex.”

Start times also were moved 10 minutes earlier at the district’s four most rural schools because of the length of the bus routes.

‘It’s affecting everyone all around’

The new start time at Scenic Heights Elementary School also was moved up 35 minutes to 7:10 a.m. For Bebe Ahmadzai to make that change work for her family, the single mom had to move her 4-year-old to a new voluntary pre-kindergarten program so her 8-year-old could make it on time to school at Scenic Heights.

“What I have to do now is make the drastic change of somewhere I felt comfortable with leaving my 4-year-old,” Ahmadzai said. “Now I have to find a different school and then I’m running into the same thing of the school shortage of teachers. They’re limited (in) how many students they can take. It’s affecting everyone all around.”

Ahmadzai also wondered how the “drastic difference” would affect her family’s nightly routine, which includes gymnastics classes from 5 to 7 p.m. that have been very positive for her daughters. She’ll have to balance that with what likely will be an earlier bedtime.

“It’s still bright outside and you have to explain to your child it’s bedtime when the sun’s beaming so brightly. They have to go to bed earlier. It’s already a struggle some days,” Ahmadzai said.

The answer to the problem could lie in increasing bus drivers’ pay, which is something Ahmadzai said she understands from her job as a recruiter in the health care industry. Her mother also retired as a school bus driver in Virginia and made a much better wage, she said.

School bus drivers in Escambia County last year earned $12.46 per hour. That caused a massive shortage last year, which left about 100 jobs opened. The rate for this school year is yet to be determined. 

“I completely understand how unrealistic pay rates are these days being a recruiter and the cost of living just doesn’t match what pay rates are … I understand people’s frustration and I understand the shortage is happening because people are fed up and I don’t blame them,” she said

Cor’Darius Jones, who will be entering into his third year as a school bus driver, agreed that pay is the ultimate solution to the district’s bus driver shortage. He said drivers aren’t compensated for the amount of responsibility they have.

“It surprised me that they did so much changing, but I feel like it’s not like the shortage just started. It’s something that’s been going on. So it’s something that could’ve been better planned. They could’ve looked at why are we losing so many drivers,” Jones said. “And it could’ve been fixed or at least been worked on to where we could’ve been stable.”

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