For decades, our students have been suffering from chronic sleep deprivation and all of the consequences that come along with it. According to the National Sleep Foundation, these consequences include “depression…impaired cognitive function and decision-making, and lower overall performance in everything from academics to athletics.”
Later school start times have been repeatedly shown to improve academic achievement, especially for middle and high school students. This is the rare educational reform issue that has almost universal support (in theory, if not practice), so why aren’t more school districts taking action?
The answer appears to be logistical in nature. As with any major change, later start times would force a lot of people to make changes to their daily routines and processes, and resistance to change is an intrinsic aspect of human nature. In this case, school staff, parents, and students are all directly affected in a number of ways, but do the pains outweigh the gains? In order to answer that question, it’s important to understand the case against change and consider the alternatives.
The first major hurdle is busing. Any changes to transportation routes and schedules come with the burden of both administrative and financial implications. School districts that rely on transportation companies to develop complicated routing and scheduling plans based on bell schedules, and resources – both mechanical and human – don’t always allow for a lot of flexibility. Districts that have adopted later start times like Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia have had to absorb the up-front cost of more buses and revised routing systems. With budgets as tight as they are, finding room for these additional purchases can be difficult.
Once a new system is in place, however, the cost has – more often than not – proven to be minimal. Some districts have even reported significant savings. The transportation barrier is the easiest to overcome; it represents a temporary inconvenience that is weighed heavily toward initial implementation, with few long-term ramifications.
Impact on families
While bus schedules can be manipulated, human schedules are a different animal altogether. Despite the research showing that elementary students are better suited to early start times than teenagers, high schools are still more likely to have the earliest start times in PK-12 school districts. Some families rely on these schedules to ensure that older children are home in time to supervise their little brothers and sisters until parents can make it home from work. Entire routines, including dinner, exercise, and other family time, revolve around the schedule that’s already in place. Moving all of the pieces around can be an intimidating proposition.
These concerns are understandable, and they need to be taken seriously. School districts considering a start time change can help ease the pain of transition by providing families with plenty of advance notice before implementing new schedules. Community resources can be leveraged to attend to any safety concerns, including extended child care centers for younger children. It is important to recognize that the earlier start times that represent the status quo contribute to their own fair share of tragedies due to drowsy drivers and pre-dawn travel.
But what about family time? Our schedules are already packed so tight that it can be tough to squeeze in a sit-down meal together, let alone a rich conversation or family activity. Schools that start later end later, and the narrow window that parents have to spend with their kids becomes even narrower. On the flip side, kids who are awake and alert make for much better conversation partners, both in school and at the dinner table. While the quantity of family time might be reduced, the improved quality should more than make up for it. As an added bonus, parents that otherwise have to miss their kids’ afterschool activities due to inflexible work schedules might actually be able to attend more often and become more involved.
As for the students themselves, later start and end times mean more and better sleep, but they also cut down on the amount of time that’s left to pursue other activities, including sports, jobs, and volunteer work. The specter of homework looms as yet another barrier to “free time” and relaxation. With schedules already packed to the bursting point, the thought of losing out on an hour or two of productive time every weeknight can be terrifying.
Fortunately, the National Sleep Foundation reports that later start times have had a negligible impact on after-school employment, a critical finding for low income families that rely on the extra income. Students who get more sleep have an easier time with homework and are generally less sluggish throughout the course of the day, meaning that they can be more productive with the time they are given. These findings are in line with what we might expect; more time does not necessarily equal more production.
In the end, later school start times are about student health, first and foremost. Sleep deprivation does not discriminate; students of all socio-economic backgrounds stand to benefit from revised bell schedules. The hurdles listed here are only tangentially connected to the larger issue and are all easily overcome with enough communication and foresight.
Has your school district adopted later start times in the upper grades? If not, keep in mind that the process of planning, collaborating, and implementing a change in schedules can span years. There is no better time than now to get that process started.
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