Op-Ed: Later Start Times—a Solution Staring Us in the Face

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It is New Canaan’s budget season again and it appears we are having the same debate over the same start time proposal as last year. 

The world has changed since a year ago, but the proposed scenario has not. The Board of Education has included $450,000 in the current budget which represents only 50% of the total cost for the proposed three-tier scenario. Note this is a 136% increase in the cost of the scenario as once thought. This is the scenario much debated across town that swaps our youngest students for our oldest students. Few schools in Connecticut have made a change to later start times and those that have led the charge (Greenwich, Westport and Norwalk) have not done it at the expense of the youngest. Weston is working on scenarios to improve start times but it will be required to be budget neutral to move forward in an attempt to better align school funding and lean town budgets.

It has been said we should trust the process that has been conducted and while yes it has been three years of much research, public forums and debate we still have missed the mark on solving for an overwhelming majority of our student body. There is no debating the need for teens to sleep which is where the discussion started and why there is such a focus on an 8:30 start time in which everything else revolves. Much of this research and data can be found on the BOE website. 

What also has been called out in the same research on sleep is that our youngest need 10 to 12 hours of sleep (three hours more than adolescents) This is harder to find in the callouts and documentation presented around the initiative. You can find the sleep tables here from the AAP American Academy of Pediatrics and AASM American Academy of Sleep Medicine (“Recommended Sleep for Pediatric Populations”).  (Spoiler alert – website coming soon where all information including research on younger children can be seen in one place) Academic research based on more than 700 elementary schools and 300,000 elementary school children clearly warns of potential academic and behavioral issues when swapping high school and elementary school times. Simply put, there are numerous studies indicating that younger children have not developed the emotional maturity or mental ability to recognize or deal with sleep deprivation.

So, in the end sleep is important for all children. That changes the initial problem to solve. We have proved sleep is important so instead of solving just for later times for teens—we have proven that sleep equity for all children is critical to set them up for success. This change in focus and reorienting of the problem to solve is rooted design thinking problem solving. 

Leveraging design thinking starts with the human problem—in our case, originally, more sleep for teens. Typically, you find you need to go back to defining the problem to solve based on inputs in the process. In this case, sleep for all children not just teens. When design thinking is employed you ensure you have the right questions being asked, embracing simple mindset shifts and tackling problems from a new direction. The result are solutions that are desirable from a human point of view that are logistically possible and economically feasible. This we did not employ. 

A red flag that would have caused the process conducted to date to pause and re-evaluate the true problem to solve were the murky results from town surveys to start with.  Two separate surveys were taken, the initial “Hanover Study” (June 2019) was commissioned by the BOE and funded by our tax dollars. This survey of over 3,200 stakeholders (parents, teachers and students) provided 5 start time scenarios to the respondents. The results of the survey appeared clear. The current option was the most opposed of all the options, with more than half of respondents opposed. The BOE followed this up with another survey that October and the current scenario again scored the lowest of 3 options provided. It should be noted that in the June 2019 survey of the 2,854 parents surveyed (page 8 of the survey) 73% had children in grades 7-12 compared with the actual school population of 48% in this age group i.e. significant over representation by that subset of parents with older children.

Instead of restating the problem, an additional bus consultant was called in to verify the optimization of our current bus routes. When questioned about solving for a start time beneficial to all students, the consultant confirmed that was not the problem he was asked to analyze. Red flag number two (this also ignores the public forums where the scenario was opposed by the majority and a petition). Should have gone back to redesign the issue to solve. 

One of the reasons a solution was pushed through a year ago was a budgetary fit. At the time (one year ago) the cost estimated for a three-tier solution was $400,000. The budget for the current scenario is now $950,000 at minimum. The BOE has approved a budget for 2021-2022 year that is an increase in taxpayer funding by 5% this upcoming year. Note that between 2001-2019, New Canaan Public Schools per student spending increased by an annualized growth rate of 4.22%, well above inflation in this period averaging ~2% (Source: http://edsight.ct.gov/SASPortal/main.do. Yet later starts for all kids has never been included in this extremely high amount of taxpayer spending.  The budget for the current scenario represents 1% of the total budget. 

Staring in the face is a two-tier solution that was more well liked per the surveys than the current scenario that represents just 1.3% of the total budget. Start time for grades 7-12 would improve from 7:30 a.m. to 8:15 a.m. and K-6 would start at 9:10. Not perfect (nothing will be) but so much better and within a stones throw of the current scenario’s budget. There are for sure efficiencies to be gained whether it is through more combined resources with the town or building lease for the BOE ($300,000 alone). This solution seems to much better address the human issue (sleep), logistically possible (new cut through at Waveny from HS to limit traffic) and fiscally reasonable compared to the current scenario.

While not explored here, the two-tier scenario also is much kinder to the business community that has been hit so hard by COVID. The dramatic changes that are proposed to be implemented in February of 2022 cause additional disruption to many of our local businesses which is the last thing they need. Our children’s ability as well to get “back to normal” will also be terribly disrupted as many of our 5-6 grades will not be able to attend after school activities since some won’t get home until close to 5 p.m. Little has been done to address this part of the school population and the consequences for them. Stability is what we all crave.

The Two Tier scenario addresses so many issues that have surfaced from the Three Tier proposal. And it re-centers our focus on the true problem to be solved – sleep equity for all. Just because there was a process doesn’t not mean when given the chance to learn and adjust is given, we shouldn’t act. 

I sincerely hope the various boards in town can adjust and proceed with the solution that causes the least disruption to our children and overall community. We have the solution—we just need the courage to act.

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