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Citing research, SWR considering later start times

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Motivated by growing research, Shoreham-Wading River is considering a new strategy to make the most of its secondary school experience: Since adolescents are biologically wired to stay up into the night no matter what, why not start the school day later to ensure they get more sleep? 

“It’s pretty simple: kids aren’t going to go to sleep before 1 or 2 in the morning no matter what you do, so if you’re bringing them to school at 6:30 or 7 in the morning, they’re only going to be getting five or six hours of sleep,” said Superintendent Steve Cohen. “That’s just not optimal from the point of learning and behavior.”

A committee of about 15 people, including parents, teachers and administrators, met for the first time Monday to discuss whether the district could push back the middle and high school start times.

Currently, the middle school starts at 7:15 a.m. and the high school starts five minutes later. But if the committee recommends a change and the Board of Education approves it, those schools could instead start at 8 or 8:30 a.m. and last until roughly 3 p.m.

One possible method would be to essentially swap elementary and secondary start times — that is, having younger students start around current high school times and having teenagers start around current elementary times.

If all schools started late, the district would need to invest in more buses, but the potential flip-flop would avoid that problem while also complementing the needs of each age group, Dr. Cohen said.

“The younger kids are up and at it early, but they’re cooked by the early afternoon,” he said. “It’s actually better for them to start the day earlier and better for their older siblings to start the day later. So that all fits.”

Sports pose another potential roadblock since practices would last later into the evening and students have to travel to other schools for games organized by Section XI. But high school principal Dan Holtzman said that could be solved.

“We’ve talked to Section XI,” he told the board at its Nov. 3 meeting. “All we would need to do in that regard is request later start times on our games. In the event we had a game out in [for example,] East Hampton, we would have to let the kids go a little earlier, which we do already.”

Dr. Cohen acknowledged that a decision to alter start times would be a “huge change,” so before anything becomes official, the committee will examine all angles and determine whether the later start time is logistically viable.

The committee will likely present its findings in the spring, but no changes would take effect until at least the 2017-18 school year, Dr. Cohen said.

If Shoreham-Wading River does go through with a plan to push back start times, it would be the first on the North Fork. A group called Start School Later has been working to advocate for later start times in Riverhead, but currently, every high school from Shoreham to Orient starts school between 7:15 and 7:50 a.m.

But the idea does have some scientific support. Lauren Hale, a Stony Brook University professor of preventative medicine who studies the relation between sleep and health, told the SWR board at its Nov. 3 meeting that it is physiologically better for teenagers to start their days later.

Dr. Hale, who is conducting a study of 1,000 teenagers around the country, said the average teenager needs between 8 1/2 and 9 1/2 hours of sleep — though the average student only gets a bit more than seven hours per night.

And although many adults might simply tell the kids to go to bed earlier, Dr. Hale explained, their bodies simply cannot fall asleep early since their circadian rhythms are pushed back much later at that age.

“That is a clinically significant difference,” she said. “You see differences in performance and achievement with less than eight hours.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adolescents who do not get enough sleep are more likely to suffer from a variety of health effects, including excessive weight, depression and poor academic performance. They also participate in risky behaviors, including drinking and smoking, at a higher rate than their peers who get enough sleep, the CDC stated.

With this growing body of research in mind, the American Academy of Pediatrics officially recommended in August 2014 that all middle and high schools should start at 8:30 a.m. or later.

“Some people say, ‘Oh, if schools start later, they’ll just go to bed later,’ but that’s not what the science shows,” Dr. Hale said. “If school starts later, they fall asleep at the same time because that’s what their bodies are telling them to do, and then they wake up later, which means they get longer sleep duration and more of that important REM sleep.”

And for Dr. Cohen, making that change would mean a better use of resources.

“[When] kids come to school at 7 or 7:30 and they don’t wake up until 9, you’ve wasted a sixth of the day,” he said. “How much [money] is that equivalent to? That’s millions there.”

Photo Credit: Evgenia Tiplyashina photo / Fotolia

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