In California, there’s a bill awaiting the governor’s signature that would push back school start times for middle and high schoolers. Similar measures at the county- level are being debated across the country in the wake of research into sleep deprivation among adolescents and the role school start times play. And here in Central Pennsylvania, Derry Township School District has announced that it will adjust its start times effective for the 2021-2022 school year.
While students may see a delayed school start as a simple fix for their chronic sleepiness, the logistics and ramifications are immense. Central Penn Parent writer Nathan Hackman sat down with Joe McFarland, Derry Township’s superintendent, and Dan Tredinnick, the school district’s director of school and community information, to learn more about the anticipated changes and the many logistical concerns.
CPP: Your school district recently announced that it is making changes to the daily school schedule. Can you talk a little bit about the exact changes you are considering?
McFarland: The ultimate goal is to have a later secondary (Middle/High) start time, around 8:30 would be ideal. That’s what the medical research, the brain research all suggest with adolescent sleep patterns for adolescents. 8:30 is the sweet spot for start times. The secondary school day would also end later.
CPP: What’s the timeframe looking like for making these changes?
McFarland: By June 30th of this year we’ll have a recommendation to the school board for new start times. They will not be implemented until the 21-22 school year. All of next school year then, the buildings will be able to use that year to develop their internal schedules, what the internal day will look like. It also gives parents time to plan.
CPP: Two years is a long time to plan. What are the logistical challenges that come with this?
McFarland: The key logistical challenges are transportation, childcare, and athletics/afterschool activities.
CPP: Other districts in the state have made this change. Have you spoken to them?
McFarland: We are doing a visit to Radnor School District in November to learn how they did it. It will be a group of administrators: transportation, athletics, myself, principals. There are 17 districts in the state now that have a later start time. Phoenixville has an 8:05 start time. Radnor has an 8:30 to 3:10. State college have 8:40 to 3:40. Their start times range, but most of them are eight o’clock or later. We’re also looking at what their original old start times were. Most of them were around what ours are, around 7:20, 7:30.
CPP: Isn’t transportation just a matter of flip-flopping the bus schedules?
McFarland: The easy way to look at it would be to flip elementary and secondary. That starts elementary at 7:30, but it’s going to be a challenge because you don’t want to have elementary kids walking in the dark, or waiting at bus stops too long in the dark. We also don’t let our kindergartners and our early elementary students off the bus unless they have somebody to receive them at the bus stop. That can create a childcare issue for some families.
CPP: For people who grew up on the current schedule this might seem like a new idea. Is it?
McFarland: It’s relatively new. When we initially looked at this in 2010 and 2011 there had been two districts in our state that had done it. Nationwide, the districts who had done it were county-wide systems, Virginia, Florida, and small private schools. At that time, there was initial research on the benefits for the brain and to adolescent sleep patterns. However, there wasn’t a lot of research that showed positive effects for schools. It’s pretty much historical that secondary has started first, and elementary has started second.
CPP: You’ve touched on this a little bit, but why? Why is this change necessary?
McFarland: Well, we’ve made [the current schedule] work, but if you talk to our kids, if you talk to our teachers, we have a lot of kids coming in late, very tired in the morning. We do well academically, but we think we’ll do better. First of all, the medical research shows that in adolescence the sleep pattern changes. Just the way the melatonin in our bodies works. In adolescence its onset is later in the evening and it’s a later rise. There have been studies done that show adolescents don’t become fully alert and awake until 10, 11 in the morning. After adolescence we’re fine in the morning, and young children do well. They’re also seeing benefits to academics, emotional wellbeing, behavior, mental health. Anxiety and depression are all lower. I believe it’s our moral imperative. While there are challenges, and it’s not going to be easy, we have to do it for the benefit of our kids.
CPP: You’ve mentioned a variety of research done on the topic. Is there somewhere that you are making that information available?
Tredinnick: A lot of it is available on our website now, and that’s an area we’re going to continue to expand.
CPP: What about the elementary students?
McFarland: For elementary students mornings are better. When we look at how we develop elementary schedules, traditionally you always want to get reading and math in the morning because their energy level is higher in the morning than it is in the afternoon. However, our current schedule tends to push the elementary into the afternoon. Elementary aged kids wake-up time is typically much earlier. A 7:30 start for them would not be a problem. Now, you have your outliers. You always have kids who are different.
CPP: What do you say to the “toughen up” crowd? The adults who say, “We were all tired in High School. Take a nap on the bus. Drink a cup of coffee. Welcome to being an adult.”
McFarland: I tend to fall into that category. However, when you look at the brain research and the benefits of it, why wouldn’t we do it? There are a lot of other areas where kids have to toughen up and get over it. This is an area we have control over and we can make a change. If it benefits them emotionally, socially, physically, why would we not do it?
Tredinnick: Just because something has always been done that way, doesn’t mean it needs to always be that way. There wasn’t any research saying secondary students have to go first. We just kind of fell into that pattern and we’ve kept it. But if you look at it in terms of, “Well why not?” There’s no imperative that we have to keep it this way, yet there’s a lot of benefits for switching the way that it’s done.
CPP: One of the first questions that came to my mind when I saw your announcement was what about extra-curriculars?
McFarland: We have to work all those things out. There are options. Obviously just flipping it without changing anything, our athletes and our teacher coaches would miss more instructional time on game days. Practices would have to start later. I know some schools have put in what’s called an advisory or a club period at the end of the day. If you’re in athletics, you miss that, but you’re not missing heavy academics. Our high school principal knows a district where student athletes were scheduled so they had physical education the last period of the day. Their sport counted as their gym period. There are a lot of different options, but the reality is athletes might end up losing a little bit more instruction time. We hope not. That’s not what we want to do.
CPP: I’ve spoken to a number of parents who rely on middle or high school students to be home earlier in the afternoon to provide childcare for younger siblings. Have you considered the impact on childcare?
McFarland: As I said, the three biggest challenges are transportation, extracurriculars, and childcare. I’ve asked someone from the township parks and recreation department to be part of our Steering Committee, so we can look at childcare options. I am cognizant of parents who rely on their older kids. For those families, where they had their secondary kids in the afternoon, now they’ll have them in the morning. Another possibility is college students looking for part-time work.
CPP: You mentioned a Steering Committee. What ways are you getting community input and buy-in?
Tredinnick: We are including parents in the Steering Committee that’s going to be working over the next year. We’re looking for two parent-guardian representatives from each building level so they can bring their insights and their real-world experiences as part of the dialogue. No solution is going to be perfect for everybody, but certainly the more we can anticipate potential stumbling blocks and be able to propose potential solutions, the more successful we hope to be.
McFarland: We haven’t fully developed that process, but we’d like the committee to have representations of all constituent groups. We also want them to be the conduit back and forth, so that parents can talk to and get information from parents.
CPP: What about students who work in the evenings? Do you envision having conversations with local employers?
Tredinnick: For three or four years now, we meet twice a year with local business leaders. We’ve asked them to identify concerns with things that we can do better to help give them a good workforce and develop a more symbiotic relationship. They’ve never said, “If you could end the school day an hour earlier, that would be better.” I’m sure on individual levels it’s going to create some issues to work around. In terms of a systematic thing it’s not been a problem. It goes back to your previous question of why do you need two years to work this out? Those are the kinds of things that we don’t have instantaneous answers for.
McFarland: Once we set the start and end time, then we have a whole year to process through all those things, and continue communicating with families.
Nathan Hackman is a freelance writer and contributor to Central Penn Parent magazine. A stay-at-home dad to four boys, one with cerebral palsy, he also writes a blog, Daddy’s Home, for our website.