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North Hills Monthly

Later School Start Times Showing Numerous Benefits

Dec 31, 2018 07:24PM ● By Vanessa Orr

If you’re the parent of a teenager, you know how difficult it can be to get them out of bed—especially to make it on time to school in the morning. And while some of their difficulties may be caused by staying up too late doing homework or playing online, the fact is, kids at this age actually need more sleep than younger children or adults.

According to Start School Later, Inc., biological changes at adolescence—including the secretion of the sleep hormone melatonin later in the evening—can cause teens to have more difficulty falling asleep. In fact, numerous studies have shown that nearly two-thirds of U.S. high school students are getting less than eight hours of sleep on school nights, with two-fifths getting less than six.

Not getting enough sleep can affect teens in many ways, contributing to depression, increased obesity, trouble staying awake in class and motor vehicle accidents. This is one of the reasons that the American Medical Association has recommended pushing back school start times to allow teens to get more sleep. This past year, Seneca Valley School District began starting their school day later with notable success.

“When I was first presented with this research 15 years ago, I started thinking about ways to improve sleep hygiene for students without interfering with what was going on in the home,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Tracy Vitale. “While we can’t control what students are doing in the evenings, we do control the school’s start time.”

However, shifting a school’s long-held start policy is no easy chore. Not only are students’ schedules going to be different, but so are those of teachers, bus drivers, athletic programs and parents. And that requires a lot of buy-in.

“We started by presenting the research to the school board about six years ago, many of whom were struggling with getting their own teenagers up for school,” said Vitale. “While a lot of people are empathetic, until you’re the parent of a teen, you don’t really get it. Those with teenagers wanted the change made that year.”

With so many logistics to take into consideration, such a fast turnaround wasn’t possible. It took copious negotiations, the results of a school survey, and intricate planning over the past two years, but by losing an activity period and shuffling bus schedules, the district was able to push all of the school start times back: secondary schools by 35 minutes and primary schools by 15 minutes.

“It took a lot of education and planning, and we had to get buy-in from the whole community,” said Vitale. “I worked a lot with our teacher’s union, the Athletic Department and our transportation director, and last Christmas, we re-did all the bus routes and ran them in July; then we made some tweaks so that we were ready for the first day of school. 

“That first day, teachers were coming up to me saying, ‘Why didn’t you do this years ago?’” laughed Vitale. 

The district has seen numerous benefits, including some unintended consequences. “Because teachers now get to school 35 minutes before the kids, there is time for training and professional development,” Vitale said. “It also reduced the amount of traffic that we’ve fought on our campus for 20 years.”

Better yet, the district has seen the number of tardies go down significantly, and teachers are reporting that students seem to be handling the change well. “Knock on wood, we’ve also seen a decrease in teen driving accidents, which could be because 400 student drivers aren’t racing to get to school,” said Vitale, adding that the district is in the process of monitoring data to see if the two factors are related.

“The change in start times has also opened up a discussion between parents and their children about sleep, which is incredibly important to have,” said Vitale. “In our society, when you get less sleep so that you can do more, you get rewarded, which is just not healthy.”

Other school districts are in the process of reviewing start times, including Fox Chapel and North Allegheny. NA met on the subject this past December, though no decisions were made. 

“A school start time analysis was presented to the school board regarding transportation logistics and financial impacts of a potential start time change,” said Emily Schaffer, NA’s public relations and communications specialist. “The topic remains on the table as the district and school board continue to weigh all options.” 

School districts that have already shifted start times include Avonworth, Peters Township, and Quaker Valley.

“We’ve heard people say that, ‘Kids just need to get to bed earlier,’ or that they need to wake up earlier and just ‘deal with the real world,’” said Vitale of those with conflicting views. “But we know what the research says, and to ignore it is not responsible. Sleep is extremely important; without it, you can’t do anything well.”