Op-Ed: Why New Jersey Needs to Examine Benefits to Kids of Delaying School Day

Terra Ziporyn Snider | November 19, 2014 | Opinion
Bill requiring a study of later school start-times could be just what doctors have ordered to ensure safe, healthy school hours

Terra Ziporyn Snider
Yes, the pending bill (S-2484, sponsored by state Sen. Richard Codey [D-Essex]) is only a study, but public health reform often springs from studies of things we already know. And yes, the bill involves state action on a school issue, but when local districts can’t ensure children’s health and safety independently, state help is not only appropriate but essential.

This bill addresses a public health issue that has long gone unresolved by local schools, and not for lack of trying. Health professionals have been telling us since the 1990s that very early school hours underlie widespread sleep deprivation among teens, putting them at serious and unnecessary risk for physical and mental health problems, car crashes, and impaired school performance. Even so, most districts have been unable to restore 8:30 a.m. or later bell times –the earliest hour that the American Academy of Pediatrics says would allow teenagers enough sleep.

So far Codey’s bill has sailed through committee, but already seeds of doubt are being planted. Most concerning are media reports suggesting that parental fears about after-school sports and teenage babysitters prompted Pemberton Township to abandon a short-lived attempt to start high schools later. The implication is that however unhealthy and counterproductive extremely early school hours may be, change is unacceptably inconvenient, costly, and complicated.

What these reports overlook is that Pemberton flipped middle school and high school start times in 2011 not to give teens more sleep but to add instructional time. This effectively moved high school starts later (8:20 a.m. instead of 7:35 a.m.) but also moved middle school starts earlier (from 8:20 a.m. to 7:35 a.m.). Parents were angry, yes — but they were angry about the longer school day and having to change their schedules, in some cases earlier, in some cases later, without adequate preparation. The next year transportation issues led the district to roll high school starts back to 7:20 a.m., even earlier than originally and angering parents concerned about health and safety.

Pemberton’s start times were not moved later on the basis of sleep research, nor were they reversed due to parental backlash. They were moved in both directions to suit other needs of the school system. Far from illustrating the impracticality of moving to evidence-based school hours, Pemberton’s experience shows the imprudence of trying to change school schedules in any direction for reasons other than children’s health and well-being, and without buy-in of community stakeholders.

We now have abundant empirical evidence that communities that prioritize sleep, health, and learning can find ways to start school later without jeopardizing daycare or jobs or sports, or necessarily requiring additional transportation funds. Even the commonsense speculation that later hours would merely lead teens to stay up later has been proven false: study after study has shown that when morning bell times are delayed, students actually go to bed around the same time, and get significantly more sleep.

Regardless of these findings, it’s also unconscionable to deprive teenagers of sleep, forcing them to sacrifice health and learning and to put their safety and that of the entire community at risk so that some unknown number of families can use them as babysitters. Nonetheless, it exactly this kind of concern that is often used to justify the status quo and trump overall health and safety. This is precisely why this bill is so critical.

Most helpful, of course, would be guidelines, even regulations, about acceptably safe and healthy school hours. Once in place, such parameters would make it considerably easier for local districts to overcome the inevitable outcry against change — which, however misguided, is politically persuasive. Schools could still, and would have to, set their own specific schedules, but they could do so without having to compromise student health and wellbeing.

For now, though, a study is the most feasible course of action. Getting any kind of mandate passed is highly unlikely because it reeks of state control. That’s where a study could help, just as it did back in the 1960s when President John F. Kennedy asked the U.S. Surgeon General to conduct a study of smoking’s connection to lung cancer — something researchers had known definitively for 15 years. Without that redundant study, those famous “smoking may be hazardous to your health” warnings would never have happened.

For similar reasons, Maryland passed historic bipartisan legislation last spring requiring the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to conduct a study about school start times. Passed by both houses unanimously, the bill was designed not to determine whether schools should delay bell times but rather how the state might play a role in setting and ensuring safe, healthy hours for children of all ages. New Jersey’s children deserve the same protection.