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The Struggle For Sleep: Why More School Districts Are Considering Later Starts

Gillian Flaccus
Sophomore students at a high school in Oregon participate in a discussion on healthy relationships.

At 6:30 a.m. in January on a residential street in West Hartford, it was 18 degrees outside and quiet. Most houses disappeared into the pitch-black darkness, making the lights coming from inside Anna Shusterman’s home especially bright.

“Hey, Max!” Shusterman yelled up the stairs from the kitchen.

Shusterman ground coffee beans and heated up some oatmeal on the stove as her two sons got ready for school. Max, her oldest, is in 10th grade at a Hartford magnet school, where the first bells ring at 7:30 a.m.

He usually sets a pattern of alarms, which begin at 5:30 a.m. after about five or six hours of sleep. The goal is to be ready and out the door in time to catch a city bus into Hartford, but on a recent Thursday, like most days, he was running behind.

“Did you brush your teeth? Did you eat something?” Shusterman asked.

“No, I didn’t eat anything. What is there to eat?” Max said as he pulled on a knit hat and searched for a dollar he needed for the bus fare.

“There’s an orange ... aren’t there granola bars? Did you eat them all?” Shusterman questioned, to which Max responded with a “probably.”

Shusterman said mornings weren’t always such a struggle. Max’s school used to start after 8 a.m., but it switched to an earlier time this year to work with a change in the district’s busing schedule.

“Now, if I get to school within 20 minutes on time, I consider that a win, being on time,” he said. “That will maybe happen twice a week. Maybe.”

Max did make the bus that morning, breaking into a sprint as it passed by while he was still a couple of hundred feet from the stop.

But the orange was left behind, in the bathroom, where he had carried it to quickly brush his teeth before bolting out the door.  

Max is among the majority of middle and high school students nationally who begin school before 8:30 a.m., despite studies and recommendations from health experts that show later start times improve wellness, safety and academic success among teenagers.

Individual towns and school districts throughout the country have adjusted start times to be more in line with the research, but California in October became the first to pass a statewide policy mandating later start times for most middle and high schools.  

Connecticut lawmakers have attempted multiple times in the past, without success, to enact similar legislation, but some legislators said they plan to try again during this year’s session, which begins Feb. 5.

National medical organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association recommend a start time no earlier than 8:30 a.m. for middle and high schools. Experts say a delayed start time can reduce chronic sleep deprivation in teenagers, a group that experiences a biological shift in their sleep patterns during puberty.

Sarah Raskin, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Trinity College, said it means most teens need between eight and 10 hours of sleep a day, and they naturally have trouble falling asleep before 11 p.m. due to changes in circadian rhythm.

“Something like 85% of students queried report that they don’t get anywhere near that,” she said, “and I’m sure if you ask any middle schooler or high schooler in Connecticut, they’re not getting 8 1/2 or nine hours of sleep.”

Chronic sleep deprivation, when combined with poor sleep habits like irregular bedtimes and the overuse of electronic devices, is linked to increased mental health issues like depression and anxiety, weakened immunity, accidents and injuries, Raskin said. It also can also interfere with a student’s ability to retain information.

“We’re leaving them unable to concentrate, unable to remember, and often feeling like school is not a positive experience and learning is not a positive experience,” she said.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota who conducted a three-year multistate study found that more than 60% of students were able to get at least eight hours of sleep per night after schools switched to a later start time.

They also found a reduction in the number of car crashes among teen drivers between 16 and 18 years old.

Raskin said most parents, educators and community members accept the research and science, but concerns about busing and transportation costs, work and home schedules, athletics and extracurriculars have been holding them back from making a change.

They’re valid problems, Raskin said, but ones that are worth finding answers to in order to implement a later school start time.

“I honestly believe that in every town, there’s a unique solution, so I think every town needs to figure out what their constraints are, but I do think there are amazing models out there of creative thinking,” she said.

A handful of Connecticut towns and school districts have shifted to later times. The Wilton School District was among the first to do so more than a decade ago, and in recent years, Newtown and Greenwich, among others, have followed suit.

Michelle Embree Ku, who chairs the Newtown Board of Education, said the proposal was discussed for years among community members. A research committee even produced a report on the topic more than 10 years ago, but it wasn’t until 2017 that the district officially changed to a later start time of 8 a.m. for its public middle and high schools.  

“There are trade-offs and challenges in every district,” Ku said, “but until you get enough people on board and convinced that it is truly what’s best for students, those challenges, which are sometimes very complex, more easily become excuses and reasons not to make the change. So it really is something that needs the momentum to make the change.”

In Newtown, a community survey revealed that most parents were concerned with the impact of chronic sleep deprivation on their children. But they also worried how a change would affect work schedules, duration of bus rides, overall costs and after-school activities.

Ku said that the district found a no-cost way of making the start time changes by restructuring its bus runs and that families seem to have adjusted to the new schedule in the last two years.

But she acknowledged that it may not work out in the same way elsewhere. Something like a statewide policy that unifies later start times for a majority of schools could help solve some issues.

“Having a statewide directive would at least put all the other conferences and districts in our area on a similar time schedule,” Ku said, “so that things like athletics and sports become a little bit less of an issue in terms of how we coordinate all those schedules, as well as the private schools, charter schools, magnet schools that we need to be able to adjust our transportation for in addition to our own public schools.”

Anna Shusterman knows the research well -- she’s a psychology professor at Wesleyan University. It adds to her frustration when policy doesn’t align with documented research.

“People ask me, as a developmental psychologist, ‘Oh, we have this mental health crisis in the state, what are we going to do, what should we be funding, what kind of resources do we need to build in?’ And I just think it’s so silly when we have such a straightforward solution that has such large, measurable impacts,” Shusterman said, sitting at her dining room table on a recent Friday afternoon.

She said the people making decisions on school start times, especially to keep them at earlier times, often don’t consider the negative impacts to students like Max who already struggle with mental or behavioral health vulnerabilities.

“We do a lot of work as a family, and he does a lot of work as an individual, to build a healthy home and a healthy family and a healthy approach to things,” Shusterman said, “so to have the school and have districts be making decisions for not just our family, but any family that is working through mental health challenges, it’s like, why are we going to send kids into this really vulnerable situation?”

Sitting next to his mother and across from Reuben, his younger brother, Max held one of the family’s cats in his lap. He stayed home from school that Friday, sick.

“What needs to happen is, I need to change how I function and function in a different way that feels comfortable so that I can graduate,” Max said. “And that’s not fun, but it’s life.”

“If your school started at the same time as mine, like my school classes start at 8 -- it’s so much nicer,” Reuben told his brother. “You’d probably be ... it would probably help you.”

“Yeah, it would. Even just a half hour. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. Honestly, give me three minutes more to sleep,” Max said as Shusterman laughed beside him, “and I’ll be good.”

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