Opinion: Time Is Now For Sleep To Be A Priority For High School Students

Photo: Bedtime. 

(Editor: On Feb. 7, the Belmont School Committee heard a presentation from the chair of the Belmont Start School Later campaign, Jessica Olans Hausman, and from School Committee member Andrea Prestwich requesting a task force be formed to consider a later beginning of the school day for Belmont High School students. Hausman presented an opinion article [below] to the Belmontonian to inform the public of current and future activities of her group.) 

The science supporting later school start times for high school and middle school students is evident.  An adolescent’s optimal sleep cycle is at 11 p.m. and wake at 8 a.m. Just put a Fitbit on your teen and put them to bed at 9 p.m. They will toss and turn until 11 p.m. That means waking up at 6 a.m. rouses adolescents at the lowest point of alertness in their 24-hour sleep cycle. It is the equivalent of an adult waking up at 4 a.m. This is why the American Academy of Pediatrics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and American Medical Association recommend starting middle and high school no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

Teens are physically and mentally healthier and higher performing with a school start time of 8:30 a.m. or later.  They perform better academically in school and experience 68 percent lower injury rate athletically after school. Incidences of mood and eating disorders, at-risk behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse, and car accidents all decrease with later start times.  

Schools around the country, including Massachusetts, are making a move to later middle and high school start times with positive results.  

  • In fall 2016, Hanover High School changed its opening bell from 7:25 a.m. to 7:55 a.m. The school’s Assistant Principal Hugh Galligan has already reported “a 32 percent decrease in Ds and Fs in period one classes, and a 10 percent increase in As in period one classes this school year.”    
  • In 2012, Nauset High School changed to start school at 8:35 a.m with an immediate result of a 50 percent decrease in Ds and Fs.  These statistics have continued steadily at the school to date.
  • A Newton Start School Later working group has collected nearly 2,000 responses to its survey of six scenarios for starting their high schools as late as 9 a.m. According to the Boston Globe, the Newton School Committee is expected to vote this spring to implement later start times as early as the fall of 2017.
  • South Portland Middle School will move its start from 7:55 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and the high school will move its start from 7:30 a.m. to 8:10 a.m. in the 2017/2018 school year.
  • Boxford, Middleton, Mascomet and Topsfield formed a Start Times Advisory Committee in Spring 2016 that has already completed evaluations studying options for later middle and high school start times.

Much more examples of towns in the region can be found on the Start School Later Massachusetts Facebook page with additional updates available from the Start School Later Massachusetts newsletter.

What is happening in Belmont?  

Belmont may not be far behind these schools in moving to a later school start time.  In 2015, Middlesex League superintendents committed that, if their towns are going to change to later high school start times between 8 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., they will change by Fall 2018. This will help to coordinate after-school sports schedules.  

Belmont School Committee is discussing starting a task force to explore starting school later for the 2018/2019 school year. Their preliminary discussion took place at the Feb. 7 school committee meeting at Chenery Middle School. They may vote on the question at the upcoming meeting on Feb. 28

Belmont residents are highly encouraged to attend this voting meeting at Chenery Middle School at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 28.  At the start of the meeting, members of the community are welcome to voice concerns for up to two minutes each. If you wish to sign a petition in support of later school start times for Belmont middle and high schools you can respond here until the school committee vote on Feb. 28. Town task forces often take one year to explore different plans and logistics for starting school later.   

If the Belmont school committee votes to create this task force and follow the year timeline, they could vote in the winter of 2017-2018 on whether and how to start school later in Belmont.

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.