Citing multiple medical organizations that say sleep deprivation causes a slew of health problems in children and adolescents, parents on Monday night told district officials that they’re eager to weigh in on an open question, now facing New Canaan Public Schools, about whether to start later in the morning.
Karen Willett, a parent of 11- and 6-year-old boys at Saxe Middle School and West School, told members of the Board of Education at their regular meeting that the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association and the CDC have all issued policy statements “about the negative impact of early start times on student mental and physical health.”
“We realize that the decision on start times cannot be made in a vacuum,” Willett said at the meeting, held in the Wagner Room at New Canaan High School
“As in every other district that has successfully changed start times, there are cost complications and logistical issues to be resolved. However, as we go through the process of addressing the difficulties, let’s also stay focused on the reason we are addressing this topic in the first place. Because that extra hour of sleep every day will help improve the mental and physical health of thousands of our children. In one of his budget presentations, [Superintendent of Schools] Dr. [Bryan] Luizzi said he often gets questions during the budgeting cycle from the finance people—and I’m paraphrasing here—‘What expenses can be deferred?’ and ‘What can be done later?’ and his response in regard to the student-impacting expenses, if we know a program is needed, we owe it to the current cohort of children to implement as soon as possible, because they will not be able to benefit from it if we defer it. In that vein, we strongly believe that the cost of not acting quickly to change start times is not zero. Rather the cost is another academic year of sleep deprivation for thousands of our children.”
Willett thanked the district for the work it currently is doing to evaluate school start times, and noted that in difficult times such as the past week—when New Canaan lost a 10-year-old West School boy to an unexpected illness—“it is clear that our schools’ compassionate and professional staff are a town treasure.” She also noted that hundreds of members of a “growing group” of parents in New Canaan have signed an online petition calling for later start times.
She referred to a website, Start School Later New Canaan, that makes the case for later start times. According to the site, early start times—requiring kids to rise prior to 8 a.m.—causes them to miss out on REM sleep and can impair creativity, abstract thinking, problem-solving, innovation, concentration, attention, decision-making, coordination and motor response times. Waking up adolescents too early also can cause irritability, moodiness, emotional instability, aggressiveness and stress, the website said.
Willett’s comments and those of others who attended the school board meeting (see below) come as district officials prepare this spring to make public the information they’ve gathered with help from an outside consultant about just how changing school start times would affect areas that include bus scheduling and associated costs, extracurricular activities, homework and classroom learning.
Luizzi has urged a deliberate and paced approach to the issue, saying it benefits New Canaan to see how later start times play out in nearby districts such as Greenwich and ruling out a change here until at least after next academic year.
He addressed those gathered at the school board meeting, thanking them for attending and providing a summary for the work that’s being done now in the district’s evaluation of later start times, and what is to come.
“The initial stage of the process was to look around at schools that are somewhat similar to our schools that have changed their start times and done so successfully, and to look at the indicators that they have collected data on and to look for the positive increases of those indicators, and we gave them a whole host of things to look at,” Luizzi said.
He continued: “Unfortunately, not many districts collect data prior to making the change—it’s not necessarily driven by that—so we did some research and learned some things, but we continue to learn and continue to look for in-depth research, and even people we speak with who have are going through it firsthand. There is a complexity to it that is very challenging for any district. There are some districts that superintendents have committed to a certain timeline and have then had to back off from that timeline, because of the complexities as they have really gotten into this. So while we resist saying ‘On this date we will have something,’ what the goal is for us is that in the spring, we will come to the Board of Education and speak to them about some possible recommendations for direction. We will be using the research that we have conducted and other research that we are looking at that gets to the operational level and function of the district.”
He noted that NCPS operates on a tightly organized three-tier bus system that sees students in seventh grade through high school start at 7:30 a.m. while those at East and West Schools start at 9:05 a.m.
“I don’t think we want to start later than 9:05,” he said. “I think it’s already tough enough when I call a two-hour delay to push that out. So you have the constraints of the times and the bus runs. So that is one of the operational questions we are looking to understand. “
When those on an internal committee come back to the Board of Ed in the spring—that committee includes principals, teachers, athletic director, VPA director and central office staff—“we will have some recommendations for that direction and then share with the board how we reached those recommendations and then we will take our direction from them as far as next steps go.”
He added: “We try to be very thoughtful and deliberative when talking about with something as significant as this because it does impact every one of our 4,200 students, every one of our over 5,000 parents, really our whole community. Schools exist in an ecosystem, so it’s not just as simple as just switching the time. We want to think about the whole system and structure around the school and make sure that we at least consider what are the unanticipated consequences will be prior to looking for direction.”
Luizzi closed by telling the parents that they’ll be invited in the spring to come before the Board of Ed to share their insights.
“Your being here tonight speaks volumes about the passion you have for this,” he said.
Lily Shen, mother of a 12-year-old son in the seventh grade at Saxe as well as an 8-year-old child, said she found that her older child became increasingly drowsy as he moved up in grade and toward earlier start times. The changes affected her son’s mood, Shen said, and after doing some research she found that an adolescent’s natural clock did not conform to the schedule set by the school start times. She urged the committee to understand that “fighting against biology is not the best way to schedule things.”
Megan Steele, who grew up in New Canaan (East-Saxe-NCHS) said parents here “want to ensure that growing children develop healthy minds and bodies” during their critical adolescent years, but that the “early wake-up time results in insufficient sleep when it’s most urgently needed.” Leaving the house when they’re still so tired often means school-age kids are missing out on a decent breakfast, without brushing their teeth or generally neglecting their appearance.
Miki Porta said that her junior at NCHS recently filled out a questionnaire for college and that when asked what was the single most important thing about high school for him, he wrote, “the pain.”
“I laughed and he said, ‘Mom, I’m not kidding,’ ” she recalled.
Rising at 6 a.m. to make a 7:30 a.m. school start time had a major impact on him, and Porta said that she’s seeing the professionals at the schools “knocking themselves out” with drug counseling and afterschool activities to ensure that the youth they oversee stay on track and feel good about school.
“But some days I look at my son and I feel like he’s got two arms tied behind his back,” she said.
Jayne Benton told the school board that she has a very straightforward safety concern about early start times because she is sending her child to the end of a driveway with trucks whizzing by while it’s still dark out, jus to be able to catch an early bus.
Marilynn Harasiuk, an educator who has children in the ninth and seventh grades, said that she found in her research that a 6 a.m. wake-up time for a child is the same as a 4 a.m. wake-up time for an adult.
“That, to me, is really significant and shocking and I cannot imagine doing that on a daily basis,” she said.