Back to School: It’s almost time…are you ready?

By Chelsea Harrison

The start of a new school year brings many exciting changes–a new teacher, new classmates, newly-sharpened pencils, and maybe even a shiny new lunch box or backpack. This year, for families in Anne Arundel County, there will be one additional change to consider: new school start times. 

Despite Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman’s request on July 29 that that Board of Education consider delaying the change of start times until next year, it seems…the times, they are a’changing

Here are some suggestions of how to keep calm and carry on for the 2022-2023 school year. 

New Start Times for AACPS

In October 2021, the Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS) Board of Education voted unanimously (8-0) to approve the new school start times, which take effect the first day of the 2022-23 school year, Aug. 29 for most students. 

The board decision stipulates that elementary schools will begin at 8 a.m., middle schools will begin at 9:15 a.m., and high schools will begin at 8:30 a.m. The decision is based on research that middle and high school students will benefit from later start times that allow them to be more well rested for school. By comparison, in previous school years, elementary start times ranged from 8:10-9:30 a.m., middle school from 8:10-9:25 a.m., and all high schools opened at 7:30. 

While many adolescents are happy to sleep a little later this year, the switch has not come without difficulties and criticism. 

AACPS is actively trying to address staffing shortages complicated by the school start changes. With school start times on a more condensed timeline, more buses and therefore drivers are required to complete the routes, whereas in prior years, drivers could complete several routes in the same area since start times were more staggered. As of the Aug. 3 School Opening Weekly Update released by AACPS, there were 72 bus driver vacancies, 56 crossing guard vacancies, 234 food service worker vacancies, 90 custodial staff vacancies, and 418 school-based teacher vacancies across the county. 

Additionally, some parents are scrambling for childcare or after-care options for the extra time that their younger children will need supervision between school ending and the end of the typical workday. In some cases, older siblings who, in prior years, may have been relied upon for childcare will not be home until well after their younger siblings have been dismissed from elementary school.  

Some parents of elementary-aged children are questioning the “healthier school hours” description of this change, since their young children will be required to wake much earlier than previous years. In winter months, some children will be walking to school or waiting at bus stops before sunrise. 

In an informal poll of 259 AACPS parents, 70 percent of parents with elementary-aged children said their child will need to wake up before their preferred/natural waking time to get to school this year. Out of 259 replies, 38 parents said their child’s wake time will be impacted by 30 minutes or less, 97 said between 30 minutes to one hour, and 46 said their child’s wake time would be affected by more than one hour. 

On the other hand, some parents point out that an earlier start time negates the need for before-care and is thus an advantage for those families. Some parents also noted that it is always a struggle to get kids up and ready for school, no matter the start time. 

Early to Bed, Early to Rise

Dr. Faith Hackett, a pediatrician in Severna Park for 36 years, sees the time change as beneficial because it enables older students to have healthier sleep habits.

“I think it is wonderful that the teenagers can start later since it is age-appropriate for teens to need to wake later. I do know it may interfere with after school sports etc. but most of these problems should figure themselves out,” Hackett says.

As for elementary-aged students who may have had a later bedtime through summer, Hackett suggests moving kids’ bedtimes earlier 30 minutes per week to prepare for their school-night bedtimes. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following sleep times: ages 3-5 years: 10-13 hours (including naps); ages 6-12 years: 9-12 hours; and ages 13-18 years: 8-10 hours.

Hackett also recommends blackout curtains to help children fall asleep if it is still somewhat light out when they head to bed. “Kids are exquisitely sensitive to light,” she notes, so light-blocking curtains can help them settle into sleep regardless of time.

Not only are earlier bedtimes a good idea, but shutting off screens well ahead of bedtime is also recommended. Hackett notes, “There was a recent pediatrics article that showed how lack of sleep in all age groups was associated with poor school and academic outcomes, and it pushed hard on the need to reduce screen times later in the evening to avoid late night sleep problems. I have to make that a priority in any discussion about sleep and school.” She suggests shutting down kids’ access to phones, tablets, TV, and computers 30 minutes prior to bedtime. 

Earlier bedtimes may necessitate earlier mealtimes, as well. “It is really important to make [meals] a scheduled event that mimics school meals: 7 a.m. breakfast, 11 a.m. lunch, snack at 3 p.m., dinner at 6 p.m., etc. if that is going to be your child’s day,” says Hackett.

Photo: Chelsea Harrison.

Shopping Checklists

Another item on your to-do list may be back-to-school shopping, which for some, is the most exciting step of the back-to-school process. If so, make sure to mark Maryland’s Tax-Free week, Aug. 14-20, on your calendar. Shoppers will not pay tax on clothing and footwear items priced under $100. The first $40 towards a backpack are also not taxed this week. 

Did you know the tax-free holiday applies to consignment stores, too? Stores such as Savvy in Severna Park, Return to Oz in Annapolis, and Honeysuckle Quality Consignment in Arnold, offer deeply reduced prices on popular brands, and parents get more bang for their buck by purchasing gently used clothes. Choosing used is also environmentally-friendly by reducing manufacturing waste and saving perfectly good clothing from the landfill. 

Since the pandemic, AACPS has provided schools with additional funding to purchase school supplies, so some families may find shorter lists of required items again this year. The needs and preferences of every school, grade level, and team of teachers may vary, so be sure to check your specific school list before heading out to shop. 

School supply lists have been posted for most schools on the AACPS page:

Children have story time with Ms. Samantha at Park Books in Severna Park. Photo: Park Books.

Crack Those Books

Between barbecues, pool days, and vacations, it’s easy to fall out of the routine of bedtime reading with your kids, or having older kids complete their summer reading lists. 

Melody Wukitch, Reading Specialist and Owner of Park Books & LitCoLab in Severna Park, suggests that implementing, or reimplementing, reading times now is a good idea, so the change doesn’t seem to be associated with the start of the school year. “The biggest thing is to make it not feel like school,” she says. 

If kids don’t already have a library card, now would be a great time to take them to get their own library card and explore the library, Wukitch says, noting it’s never too late in the summer to participate in the summer reading program.

“A lot of parents don’t think about writing,” says Wukitch who suggests journaling or “diary-your-day” as a fun way to “warm up their hands” for the writing that will happen during the school year. 

Adios, Summer

As we rush to check off those last summer bucket list items (sno-balls, anyone?), here is a week-by-week list to help families stay on track with school preparation, from now until the first day of school (Aug. 29 for most students):

Three weeks out

  • Have your kids go through their fall clothes. Those favorite jeans from last school year may fit more like highwaters now! Figure out now if you’ll need to shop for fall clothes during next week’s Tax-Free shopping period. 
  • If bedtime needs to change by 1.5 hours or more to be ready for school, begin moving bedtime back by 30 minutes this week.
  • Consider installing blackout curtains in your kid’s room(s). If you purchase/order now, you give yourself some wiggle room to install them in the next two weeks. 
  • Have anything on your summer bucket list? A fishing trip or that tie-dye project? Get it on the calendar now.
  • For kindergarten parents: You completed registration with your new school, right? If you’re not sure, now is the time to call the school and check. 
  • Apply for Free or Reduced Price Meals. All students may apply; once the online application is submitted and validated, the eligibility status of your child(ren) will be sent home. 

Two weeks out

  • If bedtime needs to change by 1 hour to be ready for school, begin moving bedtime back by 30 minutes this week. 
  • Are new water bottles, reusable snack bags, backpacks, or lunch boxes on your list? Order or shop for those now before stock gets picked through.
  • Need another reason to shop? It’s Maryland’s Tax-Free Week, August 14-20. Purchases that can be tax exempt this week are clothing and footwear under $100 and the first $40 of a backpack. 
  • Do you know when your school’s Back to School Night is? Find out and pencil it on your calendar:

One week out

  • Bedtime still not on track? Bump it another 30 minutes earlier this week.
  • For new (pre-k or K) students: Practice (with a grown-up) eating lunch out of the lunch box, bento box, or whatever containers you plan to use. Parents should make sure children can open and close everything themselves.
  • Time to get meals on a consistent (and if needed, earlier) schedule to mimic meal times on a typical school day.
  • Before you’re burned out on packing lunches, make a list of easy packable lunch ideas for those days when you are feeling uninspired for ideas (like in March…or next Wednesday). 

Three days out

  • Make sure you are consistently using that new bedtime to rest up for the first day. Consider waking kids up at the new wake time for school days (though we won’t blame you if you use every last opportunity to sleep in while you can!).
  • Dig out those First Day of School posters for first-day pictures.
  • Look up school lunch menus and write down who is taking or buying lunch for the first week.

The day before

  • Do everyone a favor and set out first day outfits the night before; this small step saves everyone some stress in the morning (Mom!!! Where is my favorite red T-shirt?!?)
  • Load up the backpacks with all those shiny new school supplies.
  • For bus riders: Double check AACPS or school website for your closest bus stop (they may have changed from last year).
  • Pack lunches, snacks, and water bottles so they are ready to grab and go from the fridge in the morning. 
  • Make sure alarm clocks are set (maybe a couple!).

The first day!

  • Help kids prepare for a long first day with a protein-rich breakfast.
  • Take those adorable first day photos.
  • Perhaps most importantly: a pep talk and a hug before they leave for the day. 

Despite the changes and challenges this year might bring, many kids (especially those who remember the dark days of distance-learning during Covid) will be excited to see friends, walk familiar hallways, and begin a new year of opportunity and adventure.