Early school start time irks parents in Pembina Trails

Parents are warning significant changes to start times will not only upend work schedules and create child-care challenges, but harm the development and well-being of children anticipated to start elementary school 45 minutes earlier next year.

The Pembina Trails School Division plans to adjust start and end times in 17 communities across southwestern Winnipeg to allow bus drivers to service two routes in mornings and afternoons.

Starting in September, roughly half of the affected schools are slated to run between 8:15 a.m. and 2:45 p.m. The others will operate 9:15 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. It affects approximately 7,000 students.

Anna Drewniak said the blueprint will require her two young children to set their alarms before 7 a.m. — inevitably reducing the amount of sleep they get — to arrive for the 8:05 a.m. first bell.

“We’re asking our kids to perform well in school. We’re asking our kids to build positive relationships. We’re asking our kids to avoid maladaptive risk-taking behaviours,” said Drewniak, a pediatric allergist. “All of that needs emotional regulation and executive functioning, and (both) are significantly impacted by and very vulnerable to sleep deprivation.”

Dozens of caregivers have voiced concerns about the fallout of the scheduling adjustments — measures that division leaders argue are necessary to address a chronic shortage of bus drivers.

Drewniak is a co-spokeswoman for Pembina Trails Parents, a newly formed coalition that advocates for timetable updates to be paused, during a public board meeting on Thursday evening.

The group has collected more than 450 signatures via online petition and the majority of the approximately 40 public attendees at this week’s meeting were in solidarity with their cause.

At the presentation, Drewniak and mother Tara Liu spoke about family frustrations at the absence of public consultation, financial strains the changes will impose and health concerns.

The duo noted the American Academy of Pediatrics has put out a position statement on the negative impacts of schools starting before 8:30 a.m., in part due to biological changes in sleep associated with puberty.

In the leadup to the meeting, Pembina Trails Parents researched start times across Winnipeg and compiled data from 207 buildings. The coalition found 93 per cent of those city schools begin at 8:30 a.m. or later while less than one per cent start earlier than 8:15 a.m.

“We would be placed as a significant outlier to the norm and arguably, in the wrong direction,” Drewniak said, adding research shows sleep deprivation is linked to attention span and impulsivity-control issues, increases both anxiety and depression, and threatens to interfere with academic performance.

Superintendent Lisa Boles has repeatedly stressed the division’s challenges with recruiting bus drivers this year and indicated this chronic labour issue is not unique to her employer or Winnipeg.

Pembina Trails, one of the fastest-growing districts in Manitoba, forecasts a surge in enrolment that would require 12 more buses in 2023-24.

“We’ve been holding (our transportation services) together, barely, this year and next year, the projection is even more dire… We could buy 12 buses, but we couldn’t get 12 more drivers. We can’t even staff the current fleet that we have on the road,” secretary treasurer Nora Wood told parents Thursday.

Liu said the plan creates upheaval for the majority to serve the 25 per cent minority of students who bus to school.

“Many families, regardless of if they bus or not, design their schedules around school start times and end times for their kids,” said the mother, who has a five-year-old and seven-year-old.

Numerous parents have expressed their desire to investigate alternatives because the current scenario is forcing families to scramble over child-care arrangements, reconsider jobs, or look at other schooling options, she added.

“I hope they really take a hard look and see that this doesn’t work for families,” said Amanda Pacheco, a health-care professional who works nights and will not be able to drop her daughter off to school because she gets off at 8 a.m.

Pacheco said she’s frustrated parents were not given an opportunity to weigh in before the changes were announced.

Division leaders have ruled out the prospect of offering hiring incentives for drivers or adjusting bussing eligibility, citing contracts and legislation that requires boards to transport elementary-aged children who would have more than 1.6 kilometers to class.

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press