Sunday, Apr 21st

Sleepy Students: Should School Start Later?

studentsleepSchool opens this week, and for many kids, that means they will be getting fewer hours of sleep. The first bell at Scarsdale High School rings at 7:55 am, and students who take the bus or drive to school need to leave home no later than 7:30 am.

A 2019 study by the CDC found that only 22% of teens are getting the recommended eight hours of sleep and lack of sleep contributes to a host of teen issues including the risk of obesity, drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco and using drugs. Furthermore, children and adolescents who do not get enough sleep have a higher risk of poor mental health and problems with attention and behavior leading to poor academic performance.

As we emerge out of the COVID crisis, mental health issues are at the forefront. In fact, the district hired four additional mental health professionals this year to address rising needs. Is it time for the Scarsdale Schools to reconsider school opening times?

Rather than opening school later, in 2017 School Superintendent Thomas Hagerman extended the school day, and started school five minutes earlier in the morining. A total of 75 minutes more per week were added to the high school schedule. The move was controversial at the time and drew complaints from the PTA, the Scarsdale High School Compact Committee  as well as parents and students. Speaking for the SHS Wellness Committee, Eileen Donovan said, "There is a high level of rigor at the high school.... We don't need more rigor." She called the new schedule "a regressive plan to keep kids in chairs for 75 more minutes," and said that the kids were, "pawns in a negotiation between the administration and teachers."

The Scarsdale Board of Education last reviewed this issue of opening times in November 2019 when some Board members wanted further study of the issue while others were concerned about logistics and overburdening the staff. At the time School Superintendent Dr. Hagerman said, “the research is clear on the benefits of sleep,” but he raised the concern that later start times could affect working parents, student transportation and the after-school sports program.” Board Vice President Pam Fuehrer felt that the district had other priorities at the time and was concerned about the existing workload for the administration and the board who were engaged in collective bargaining and the implementation of the strategic plan. She said she saw this as a wellness issue.

Now three years later, the state of California passed a law that requires all public high schools to start no earlier than 8:30 am. About the initiative, California State Senator Anthony Portantino said, “Establishing a time before which schools should not begin mandated instruction is as fundamental as requiring schools to turn on the heat when the temperature falls below a certain level. Local districts would still set their own hours; they need only meet the minimum 'no earlier than' start time that’s proven to be essential to students’ well-being. It’s time for an evidence-based, sound policy discussion that prioritizes student health and achievement. Teaching adolescents at a time they cannot effectively learn is an ineffective use of public funds and undermines our children’s health and their chances for success today and in the future."

In Seattle, the public school schedule was shifted in 2016, adjusting the opening time of high school from 7:50 am to 8:45.

In New York State, a similar bill was introduced in the state assembly and senate in August 2021. The bill, which was sponsored by Assemblyman Harvey Epstein a Democrat who represents lower Manhattan, would bar state aid for any school starting before 8:30 am. The rationale for the bill is as follows:

"Analysis by the New York State School Boards Association found that two-thirds of high schools start the school day before eight a.m. According to the Centers for Disease Control, early school start times can pose health risks to adolescents, including being overweight, drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco, and using drugs. Studies have also shown that the academic performance of sleep-deprived students suffers.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that middle and high schools start no earlier than eight-thirty a.m. to ensure that students aged thirteen to eighteen are receiving the eight to ten hours of sleep recommended by doctors. California enacted legislation in 2019 to mandate high school start times no earlier than 8:30; several states are currently studying the effects of beginning school later. This legislation would add New York to the list of states taking action to prevent adolescent health issues caused by lack of sleep.”

Similar bills are under consideration in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Texas, and the US Virgin Islands.

Should Scarsdale study the issue?

Michelle Sterling, a mother of two teenaged girls in Scarsdale says we need to re-examine the schedule, saying, “Sleep is so important. I think that anything we can do to help kids get more rest would be beneficial - both to their educational experience and even more importantly to their overall well-being.”

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