Opinion: Time to Reset When Belmont Schools Start The Day

Photo: Sleep deprivation among adolescents is a chronic problem across the country and here in Belmont.

By Andrea Prestwich and Steve Saar, Belmont Start School Later

For one Belmont High School senior, the beginning of the school year – which starts today, Wednesday, Sept. 2 – is a double edge sword; the excitement of their final year in the public schools is dampened in trying to stay awake to enjoy the moment. 

“It’s really difficult to maintain your focus in class when you don’t get enough sleep. Belmont High School is a great school with high standards, but it’s difficult to keep up when you’re chronically tired,” the senior said, who manages to sleep seven hours on a “good” night.

Our daughter is another example. She is a 12-year-old Chenery Middle School student who says she feels “heavy, slow, grumpy and lethargic” on most school mornings.

What’s wrong with these kids? As it turns out, NOTHING! Many – if not most – middle and high school students in Belmont struggle with chronic sleepiness as they are forced out of bed at 6:30 a.m. or earlier to get to school.

Numerous scientific studies have shown that as kids hit puberty their sleep rhythms change. They naturally fall asleep later and get up later. Asking a teen to get up at 6:30 a.m. is like asking an adult to get up at 4 a.m.; they are deep into their natural sleep cycle. Studies also show adolescents need eight-and-a-half to nine-and-a-half hours of sleep each night.

Depriving kids of sleep at such a crucial period of their development can lead to serious long-term health consequences, including:

  • increased risks of obesity
  • diabetes
  • hypertension
  • stroke
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • substance abuse
  • Accidents while driving.

Sleep deprivation among adolescents is a chronic problem across the country, linked to poor impulse control and self-regulation – sleepy kids make bad decisions – impairments in attention and memory and deficits in abstract thinking.

Student athletes are especially impacted by sleep deprivation. A study highlighted by the American Academy of Pediatrics showed that “athletes who slept eight or more hours each night were 68 percent less likely to be injured than athletes who regularly slept less.”

The scale of the problem has been recognized by the Center for Disease Control, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, the Society for Pediatric Nurses, the National Association of School Nurses, and the National Sleep Foundation, all endorsing later school start time, with middle and high schools opening no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

So, with just about every professional medical organization in the country endorsing later school start times, why does Belmont begin the Chenery day at 7:55 a.m. and Belmont High at 7:35 a.m?

Sometimes the reason is economics. Many schools set start times decades ago to save transportation costs by running the same busses in three cycles for the high school, middle school and elementary school. Starting schools early also leaves more time in the afternoon for athletics and other after-school activities.

The current schedule would make sense if adolescents had a “sleep mode” button, but sadly, evolution has not seen fit to equip them with one. You just can’t put teens to bed at 9:30 p.m. and expect them to go to sleep immediately and wake bright and early at 6 a.m. as the schedule is contrary to their natural sleep rhythms.

If you put teens to bed at 9:30 p.m. they will toss and turn until 11 p.m. when they will finally start to feel drowsy. The adage “early to bed and early to rise” doesn’t apply to adolescents; they are creatures of the night!

So why not change Belmont to a healthier, later schedule? First, there’s a widespread belief that if schools start later kids will stay up later. This is not true. A landmark study looked at 18,000 high school students in Minneapolis before and after the district’s school start time changed from 7:15 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. The main conclusion was that high school students slept an hour longer on average when their school started later. They went to bed at the same time as before the time change and slept longer. 

Athletics is another consideration. Currently, schools in the Middlesex League have early starting times. If Belmont were to shift to a healthier, later schedule, our athletes would be out of sync with the rest of the league. Practice times would also have to change, possibly causing a ripple effect and impacting youth groups who use the same facilities.

Other barriers to a later schedule include the need to re-think before- and after-school programs and the impact on some kids with part-time jobs. 

There are certainly obstacles to shifting Belmont High and the Chenery to start later but none is insurmountable. For example, bus schedules could be reversed so that Winn Brook starts first at around 7:45 a.m., then the High School just after 8:30 a.m., Wellington, and Chenery later. Elementary school kids are usually up with the larks, bouncing on their beds – they have sleep rhythms naturally suited to an earlier start. 

Start School Later has local chapters across Massachusetts working for later start times, and we are working with Massachusetts legislators. Hopefully, Belmont will join other districts as they shift times.

Even though there are difficulties in changing school start times, it is not acceptable for our kids to be sleep deprived, any more than it is acceptable for them to go without food or any other life necessity. And sleep is a necessity of life. Our kids should start the school day well fed and rested. The current start times make this impossible.

School districts around the country have shifted to healthier schedules with very positive results: kids are more alert and less grumpy, there are lower rates of tardiness and fewer missed school days. They arrive at school ready to learn.

We ask Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan and the Belmont School Committee follow the recommendations and shift Belmont schools to healthier schedules.

 

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Comments

  1. Kate says

    I live in Watertown and many parents have brought this up at School Committee meetings last year! The data is clear..yes there are some logistics to work out but even a 20min later start would help(Watertown HIgh I believe starts at 7:50am while the middle school starts at 7:40 and Elementary 8:15). I’m would hope that many schools (parents:>)in the Middlesex league would be interested in moving the starting time back a bit. I played all three season’s of sports and went to school until 2:45…our schools were just as far(or further)than the schools in Middlesex league and we seem to do this ok…..Possibly we need to do this as a collective to get all the districts to listen to common sense!:>

  2. Patricia Davis says

    this research was done in the 60s when I was in hig school. I went to a small Catholic high school from 9:00 to 3:00. I believe Belmont has allowed students to start later, if they have a doctor’s note certifying that this is a medicall condition. The start times are about sports, after school jobs and bus schedules… I taught Ina another school system and questioned why the younger students who naturally get up earlier go to school later.

    • Andrea Prestwich says

      I’m glad kids can get a doctors note in Belmont certifying they have a medical condition and need to sleep late! Problem is, AlL kids need a doctors note for the condition known as “puberty”.

      Oh wait, the Centers for Disease Control just gave them one!

  3. John Bowe says

    If Belmont were to try this, we’d surely get more local buy-in if a few other districts near here were trying it with us. Even better, if another Middlesex league school or two did.

    • Andrea Prestwich says

      Hi John,

      I’m sure you’re right……..but we have to make our kids health a priority. Belmont needs to take a leadership role and make the change.

      The injury rates for sleep deprived athletes are scary. The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association should be very motivated to move to healthier times. I would think parents of athletes would be especially supportive of the move.

      Andrea

  4. Kim Slack says

    Science is clearly on the side of later start times. Mr. Phalan said he studied this very question when he was with Milton, so he’s aware of the compelling evidence. Parents need to be heard, What changes would we be willing to make to decrease the effects of sleep deprivation with our kids?

    • Andrea Prestwich says

      i have been in contact with superintendent Phelan, and yes, he is aware of the research. Last year he had enough on his plate just keeping the school system afloat, but we hope that this year he’ll “get serious” about start times. The most successful transitions have been made where superintendents have been committed to changing times and were creative about healthy schedules.

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