A Jump-start for Late Starts

Tool Analyzes Bus Routes for Shifting When School Begins
by Liam Farrell | Illustration by Jason Keisling

From groggy teens to pediatricians, plenty of people want middle and high schools to start later in the morning. Thanks to a new tool from University of Maryland researchers, sleepy students may be closer to more shut-eye.

Ali Haghani, a UMD professor of civil and environmental engineering, and doctoral student Ali Shafahi have developed a mathematical model that analyzes start times and bus routes to create the most efficient transportation options using the fewest vehicles.

The cost of more buses has been a major financial hurdle to changing when schools begin. Instead, school systems typically require early high school bells, then later middle and elementary starts so each bus in their fleet can be deployed on multiple daily runs.

“A small percentage (decline) in the number of buses translates to a huge savings,” Haghani says. “You have less pollution, environmental issues, all kinds of things.”

The Howard County (Md.) Public School System originally approached UMD’s QUEST Honors Program in 2015 to ask its students to take on the bus and start-time quandary, but Haghani came aboard because of its complexity.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, five out of six U.S. middle and high schools start before 8:30 a.m., even though teenage sleep cycles—not to mention homework and extracurricular activities—make it difficult for students to fall asleep before 11 p.m. The CDC estimates that two out of three U.S. high school students sleep fewer than eight hours on school nights, putting them at higher risk for obesity, depression, poor school performance and risky behaviors such as drug use.

Opponents of delaying high school times have worried about disrupting after-school activities like sports and sending younger children out to bus stops on dark winter mornings. The bus issue “carries the most financial impact,” says David Ramsay, director of transportation for Howard County public schools.

Howard’s school board voted in February to have all schools begin between 8 and 9:25 a.m. in the 2018–19 school year. (High schools currently start at 7:25 a.m.) Ramsay says Haghani’s model will be critical to figuring out adjustments, as some county buses complete up to four routes every morning, and the later bells will cut 30 percent of their available time.

Haghani’s model tackles that problem by limiting the amount of time buses travel their different routes without students on board. His work has attracted interest from school systems in Philadelphia, Seattle, Kentucky, Massachusetts and California.

“I see it basically as a service we give back to the community,” he says.


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