After years of parental and student pleas to the Hopewell Valley Regional School District (HVRSD) to consider later starting times for middle and high school students, a District committee has been formed to consider the issue. As part of its study, last week the HVRSD welcomed Bert Mandelbaum, MD, FAAP, pediatrician, and Chair of the NJAAP’s Task Force on Adolescent Sleep and School Start Times, who presented a talk entitled “Changing School Start Times for the Health and Education of Adolescents: Promoting Better Health and Educational Outcomes for Students” to the Hopewell Valley community.
HVRSD Superintendent Dr. Thomas Smith introduced Mandelbaum, noting that the HVRSD is actively considering changing school start times. Smith indicated that most districts in the County are having similar discussions and explained that HVRSD created its School Start Time Committee to address the impact of this issue on the local community. He said that the Committee is comprised of representatives of various groups affected by this issue including parents, staff, administration and students.
Mandelbaum began his presentation by describing his experience as a pediatrician seeing an increase in mental health issues and stress among middle school and high school students, some of which, he said, was attributable to sleep issues. He stated that the research is clear: there is no educational benefit to high school students starting school early. In the 1950s and 1960s, schools generally started between 8:30am and 9am, Dr Mandelbaum explained, and that was gradually made earlier to solve transportation issues, not to add to instructional time.
Mandelbaum noted that adolescent brains are developing through age 25 and, in fact, this is the second most critical period for brain growth after infancy. Sleep is critical as because that is when the brain processes information, he explained. Adolescents need eight to ten hours of sleep, but the average high school student gets only six to seven hours. This lack of sleep impacts learning, mental health, and safety, as adolescents make more impulsive decisions when tired. He continued: “On the other side, when they have sufficient sleep, research confirms that grades, mood, and sports performance all improve.”
Mandelbaum emphasized that this lack of sleep is not just a teenager refusing to go to bed in a timely fashion. He said that studies have found that there is a change in the circadian rhythms that appears in adolescence; teens can experience as much as a two to three hour shift on both sides of the sleep cycle. He stated that they naturally want to go to sleep around 11pm and wake around 8am. He gave this example: Waking a teenager at 6am to get ready for the bus to school may feel to that child the way waking at 3am to catch an early flight might feel to an adult. But he explained that, unlike a one-time change, teenage bodies do not adjust to this schedule; they remain chronically sleep-deprived and fatigued throughout high school. Studies also show that a delayed start time does not encourage teens go to bed later. These biologically driven changes in sleep pattern are beyond the control of adolescents or their parents.
Since the scientific community is united on the benefits of starting school for middle and high schoolers later, ideally not before 8:30am, Mandelbaum turned to the issues of implementing such a change. He indicated that there are four major obstacles to making a change: transportation, sports, teacher/parent schedules, and other after-school activities.
Transportation is a critical issue for a district such as Hopewell Valley, where busses travel the entire 62 square miles each day. Mandelbaum said, however, that he has learned that there is usually a solution that does not involve increased spending. He stated that the Princeton schools found a revenue-neutral solution when they changed school start times recently.
Smith noted that one possibility for Hopewell Valley schools would be to flip the start times between the middle and high schools (currently beginning at 7:45am) with the elementary schools (currently beginning at 8:35am). Mandelbaum stated that an early start provides no detriment to elementary school students who naturally awaken early. For many, he said, this is lost time in the morning. He opined that it may even be beneficial for the younger children because then they would get home early enough to play outside while there is still daylight.
Sports are another major consideration in making this transition. Mandelbaum is of the opinion that practices can be made more efficient and limited to 90 minutes per day. The discrepancies between ending times can affect the timing of games, but that can be solved by communication between school athletics departments. And, he surmised that, as more schools change, this issue may become moot. Finally, there is the issue of missed classes when students leave for away games. HV Central High School already has adopted a rotating block schedule, so students do not always miss the same class.
The remaining issues involve the impact on parents and teachers whose work schedules may be affected, as well as the impact on other activities not related to school. Mandelbaum acknowledged that the impact on the parents and teachers is real and important, but argued that the health and well-being of students should be primary. One way to minimize the disruption is to have community outreach and a reasonable timetable for implementation.
Mandelbaum indicated that even a small change of not less than 20 minutes can have a significant impact on students. He said that Princeton delayed its middle and high school start times from 7:50am to 8:20am (30 minutes) and students there are reporting 20 to 30 minutes more sleep each night.
Smith noted the relationship between this and the District’s commitment to mental health. He indicated that the School Start Times Committee is due to make its recommendation to the Board of Education by early April of 2020. If they recommend a change, it would likely not be implemented prior to the start of the 2021-2022 school year.
For those who wish more information about this important issue, the school district has posted this presentation as well as many other studies and resources on its webpage.