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Op-Ed: Opposing the Change to School Start Times

West Hartford Public Schools Superintendent's Office. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The following is the text of a letter to the Board of Education, drafted by Doug Mantz, Meghan and Angelo Culmo, Liz Santoro, Tim and Marie McNamara, Sharon Murray, Gretchen and Pete Ganey, and signed by more than 150 other parents, students, and town residents, voicing their opposition to the proposal being considered by the West Hartford Board of Education to change school start times.

To the Board of Education members,

I am writing to strongly oppose the proposal to change school start times. Hearing arguments in support of this change at the town hall Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018, only served as convincing arguments to the contrary.

I am not a physician, a psychiatrist, nor a sleep specialist, and must rely upon the research of experts in the field. However, to the untrained eye, it is quite clear that teenagers would generally benefit from more sleep. Unfortunately, there are only 24 hours in a day and changing the start time of school does not add 45 minutes to the day.

The delayed opening may help some children but may result in a significant number of unintended consequences. Further, I am generally opposed to initiating institutional changes to correct perceived problems that may best be corrected through individual attention and personal responsibility.

Every teenager lives within a different set of circumstances. Some work after school, some require extra tutoring, some are involved with athletics, choir, volunteer work, and the list goes on. One concern that we as parents can probably all agree upon is that our children’s lives are far busier, more scheduled, and structured today than in previous generations. The second concern that we should all share is our teenagers’ attachment to and use of technology.

I would argue that busy schedules and the overuse of phones, tablets, computers, video games and television have as much, if not more, negative impact on our teenagers’ sleep schedules than the time at which school begins. We, as parents, have influence over these important factors, should we choose to exercise it.

The basis of the of the argument to delay school opening, as far as I can tell, is that teenager’s brains magically release melatonin in unison at 11 p.m. That may very well be true but if that were the case, daylight savings would correct the matter and melatonin would be released at 10 p.m. I think that the rational mind would tell us that the 11 p.m. magic hour is the result of sleep/wake schedules, the amount of time each child is involved in activities during the day, and stimuli leading up to a natural bedtime.

Studies show that teenagers and adults have a more difficult time sleeping within four hours of vigorous exercise. As an example: If basketball practice ends at 7 p.m., a teenager will not be able to sleep until 11 p.m. Push basketball practice back 45 minutes and bedtime becomes 11:45 p.m.

Studies also show that more than 90 percent of teenagers use some form of digital technology in the hour before bedtime. Exposure to light from digital devices can delay the release of melatonin and push back sleep. Research indicates that more highly interactive forms of technology – video games, cell phones, and tablets tend to interfere with sleep and worse yet, lead to un-refreshing sleep.

Without parental guidance helping our children maintain a manageable schedule and monitoring the use of their phones, my fear is that bedtime will merely be pushed back 45 minutes to coincide with their new waking time required to get to school. In my view, changing the school start time is shortsighted and is nothing more than treating the symptom and ignoring the cause.

If this time change was to be enacted, without a change in our children’s behavior, I do not believe that it would result in any meaningful increase in average sleep time. I do believe that this change will add costs, disrupt current schedules, and result in loss of certain after school activities.

Please see the following questions that must be answered/considered before this proposal should be considered.

Questions:

Financial Implications

To the town: What is the actual cost for bus schedule changes? I’ve seen as little as $94k and up to $500k. Neither is affordable.

Are teacher’s contracts affected by changing the school start times? Will that result in greater cost to tax payers?

  1. Teachers: How many teachers will incur additional day care expenses for their own children?
  2. Paraprofessionals: Many hold a second job. How many can afford to lose an extra hour of work?
  3. Families: How many families will be negatively impacted by before and after school day care expenses and modified work schedules? Many parents have their work schedules tied to school hours.
  4. Working students: How many students and businesses will be impacted losing an hour of work each day?

High school sports

  1. What is the cost of a new bus schedule?
  2. How much school will kids miss in the afternoon? Newtown and Greenwich report a significant increase in early dismissal to play other schools with a traditional dismissal time. This is disruptive to class and most importantly, our students’ education. Currently, there are 23 early dismissals for student-athletes, this number is projected to be 260 with the proposed hours.
  3. What about coaches now holding practices in the morning, before school?
  4. Conard/Hall swim programs: What will happen to these if Cornerstone is not available? That pool was built for both high schools. What if, due to financial constraints, the pool takes in paying customers (as they are with Avon) and we are not able to utilize the pool?
  5. Golf programs: What will happen with the change in time? Rockledge won’t accommodate a later starting time.

Other non-school related/community related items worth considering

  1. Youth sports leagues will likely be impacted and potentially cut due to the time change and the conflict with daylight savings. We can ill-afford losing opportunities for our kids to get exercise and play in a team sport setting prior to getting to high school.
  2. All after school activities will be negatively impacted including, but not limited to, religious education of all denominations, Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts, etc.

I believe that everybody on both sides of this argument truly has the best interest of our children in mind. In reaching the desired result, there are two ways to approach any issue: 1. Fix it yourself 2. Ask somebody else to fix it for you.

I fear that those promoting this change are the same parents who are inclined to question their childrens’ teachers when their child experiences some failure. I would never ignore science or the opinions of experts, but the proponents of this change are ignoring logic.

My opinion is that too many people today look to utilize simple, widespread policies to correct a concern when the remedy is often within their own personal control. The Board of Education, the town, teachers, and coaches are all here to support our efforts in raising and educating our children, for which I am grateful, but it is our ultimate responsibility as parents to help our children navigate their formative years. Getting eight hours of sleep is on the parents and the student, not the Board of Education.

In summary, regardless of the starting time of school (7:30 a.m. or 8:15 a.m.), parents and students still have to find a way to pack in their daily responsibilities, monitor and limit the use of technology, and ensure that they get their needed rest. Starting school 45 minutes later is just the type of “group-think” that I fear is costing our town wasted time and money. Nobody wins when governing to the few at the cost of the majority.

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