Six Prince William County elementary schools are scheduled to end the day at 4 p.m. next year, prompting School Board members who represent the western end of the county to press the district's transportation department for a way to get children home earlier.
Although a solution hasn't materialized, "as far as I'm concerned, this is not a done deal," said board member Milt Johns (Brentsville). Johns, Don Richardson (Gainesville) and Chairman Lucy S. Beauchamp (At Large) met last week with school officials to discuss options.
Six elementary schools are scheduled to start at 9:30 a.m. and end at 4 p.m. next school year: Alvey, Ellis, Mountain View, Mullen, Nokesville and Tyler. Other western elementary schools are letting out nearly as late: Cedar Point, Loch Lomond, Pennington and Yorkshire will start at 9:15 a.m. and end at 3:45 p.m.
Some parents have said that, because of long bus rides, many children might not get home until 5 p.m. or later. Other working parents have said that it's difficult to wait so late in the morning to see their children off to school.
"The general consensus is that [parents] are very disappointed," said Andrea Chapman, president of the Mountain View Parent Teacher Association. "It's a very difficult situation, and not everyone is going to be happy."
High school and middle school times are relatively unchanged for next year. High schools start at 7:30 a.m. and end at 2 p.m. Middle schools will start around 8:20 a.m. and end around 2:50 p.m.
Transportation officials said they are hampered by circumstances out of their control. Western schools tend to be farther apart, and connected by roads already choked with traffic. Many children can walk to school in the more densely populated, older neighborhoods in the eastern end of the county, but, in the western end, a higher percentage of children must ride the bus.
In addition, the School Board added 30 minutes to the elementary school day, beginning next year, as part of a series of changes intended to strengthen the district's academic program.
"If I had a solution, I would not be sitting on it," Ed Bishop, director of transportation, said in an interview last month.
One of the problems is that every change has a cascading effect, because buses are used to transport high school students, then middle school students, then elementary students.
"We're very sympathetic to how the parents feel about it, but there's not going to be anything we can do about it overnight," Richardson said. "My main goal is to keep the conversation going. We don't have any easy solutions."
A committee of parents, teachers and school staff earlier this year recommended switching the time that elementary and middle school students start classes. The committee's rationale was that older students can handle coming home late better than their younger counterparts. However, such a change could make it much harder to schedule after-school activities at middle schools.
Johns said that he would like to hold hearings in the fall to address that suggestion and other ideas, such as building sidewalks so that more children can walk to school safely, transporting some groups of children together, or increasing the "walk distance" for schools. Currently, anyone who lives more than one mile away from a school gets bus service.
In the meantime, Johns said, he has asked the transportation department to come up with a way to adjust the times on the six schools that are scheduled to end at 4 p.m.
"This is not to criticize the transportation department. They do an amazing job," Johns said. "I just need them to do a little bit more of an amazing job."