How sleep science is changing school schedules across Central PA

Down the street from your house, just as the horizon starts to glow in the morning, Darren drags himself out of bed. He slowly fumbles his way through dressing and breakfast, then collapses on the couch, drifting on the edge of sleep for a few minutes, until the sound of a car horn in the driveway brings him to his feet. Darren gets a ride to school with a teammate who lives two streets over. It’s less reliable than the bus, but gives him 20 more minutes in bed each day. Rides home from school are loud, laughter and stories shared over thumping music; but the mornings are silent. The two boys don’t even exchange a greeting as the car rolls out of the driveway.

Darren’s teachers find him indifferent. Despite brief moments of obvious intelligence, he seems happy to drift through his day and sleep through his free time. His team coach comments that if Darren studied as hard as he practiced, he’d be a star student. Instead, reports to his parents are peppered with the bane of all middle-of-the-road high school students: “Doesn’t apply himself.”

In the last decade, some educators have begun to argue that Darren’s condition isn’t only related to motivation. Maybe he’s just tired. The conversation focuses on “circadian rhythms,” or the way our bodies manage the production of hormones like melatonin (for sleep) and cortisol (for alertness) throughout the day. Most adults experience their deepest sleep from 2 to 4 a.m., with some room for variation in “night owls” or “morning people.” Adolescents experience what’s called a “sleep phase delay.” Their deepest period of sleep typically occurs between 4 and 6 a.m., two hours later than adults. These changes in adolescent sleep patterns have been observed in 16 countries on all six occupied continents, appear to be brought on by puberty, and fade in early adulthood. Studies of students in the same school classroom have shown that students who have entered puberty experience the delay, while those who haven’t retain the sleep patterns of childhood.

Practically, this means adolescents struggle to fall asleep prior to 11 p.m. and are not fully awake until after 8 am. With many school days beginning around 7:30, and students waking even earlier, it becomes difficult to achieve the 8-10 hours of sleep recommended for their age. Insufficient sleep disrupts the circadian rhythm, extending periods of drowsiness as late as 10 a.m. for adolescents. As it stands, students are in a natural phase of life where they struggle in the early to mid-morning, and that situation is worsened by the school schedule. For this reason, medical organizations across the country, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association, have issued calls for schools nationwide to delay start times for secondary (middle and high) schools until 8:30 a.m. or later.

School administrators in Central Pennsylvania have been listening. In September of this year, the Derry Township School District initiated a two-year process of re-evaluating school start times, with the likely result being a switch of daily schedules between the elementary and secondary schools. Adolescent students would begin and end their day later, allowing for roughly one hour of additional sleep in the morning. The elementary day would move one hour earlier, allowing for more morning instruction time, when elementary students tend to perform better.

Derry Township Superintendent Joe McFarland calls the change a “moral imperative,” adding, “If it benefits [students] emotionally, socially, physically, why would we not do it?” Indeed, school districts which have made the change, including over a dozen in Pennsylvania, report benefits including increased attendance and decreased disciplinary issues, rises in scores for standardized tests and college entrance exams, even improvements in student-parent relationships.

However, the change will not be easy. McFarland believes his district faces challenges in three overlapping areas: transportation, extracurricular activities and childcare. For example, moving the elementary schedule an hour earlier may leave younger students waiting for the bus or walking to school in the dark, and returning home while parents are still at work. The secondary school schedule would extend into time slots traditionally reserved for sports and other extracurriculars, requiring early dismissals and lost instruction time for students participating in those activities.

Administrators in Mechanicsburg Area School District are familiar with these challenges. They implemented a similar schedule change for the 2018-2019 school year. Mechanicsburg was able to reduce some of the complications by making the schedule change less severe for younger students. While the high school began its day 25 minutes later, elementary students saw their school day begin only five minutes earlier. To tackle the transportation logistics, the district worked with an outside transportation agency and busses elementary and secondary students simultaneously. Derry Township maintains its own transportation fleet, relying on each bus to make a separate run for elementary and secondary schools. Adopting a Mechanicsburg style plan would require expanding their fleet.

Mechanicsburg also implemented an end of day “flex-period,” allowing student athletes the opportunity for early dismissal without missing core instruction, but providing the greater benefit of giving teachers office hours when they can meet with students, and allowing students to pursue areas of interest more deeply than in typical classroom settings. Derry Township is also considering this approach to the end of the day, possibly allowing student athletes to use last-period sports practices to fulfill physical education requirements.

Perhaps the largest challenge is the one where school districts have little control: childcare. The Snedeker family lives in the historic downtown area of Hershey. They have children in fifth and eighth grades at Derry Township, and are thankful the schedule change process will take two years. Both Snedeker parents work full-time. One travels frequently, and there is little room in the budget to pay for childcare. If the schedule were to change today, the youngest Snedeker would be at home alone for an hour each day.

The Milunic family lives just across the street from the Snedekers. Stacey works full-time as a physician, with long hours and frequent overnight shifts. Michael stays home with their four children. Michael cannot attend activities for four children simultaneously, and will sometimes rely on his middle school son to watch younger siblings in the afternoon. If that option is not available, he looks to other secondary students in the neighborhood as babysitters. However, the potential schedule change doesn’t only eliminate Michael’s oldest as an afternoon childcare option, it eliminates all secondary students.

Up in the wooded hills outside of Hershey, Raman and Ritika Baweja have staggered their work schedules to provide care for their two elementary-aged children. Raman is home in the morning, and Ritika ends work in time to be home in the afternoon. When their oldest moves to middle school next year, they plan to give him the responsibility of being home alone for one hour after school. If the proposed earlier elementary schedule is implemented, neither parent has enough flexibility in their work schedule to be home for that hour with their youngest.  Paying for childcare is an option for the Bawejas, but they are quick to point out that the challenge is often finding childcare in the first place. Local daycare center after school programs fill quickly, and many neighborhood families are also searching for childcare, rather than offering to provide it.

Both Derry Township and Mechanicsburg host before and after school care programs in their elementary schools for a fee. By changing the elementary schedule as little as possible, Mechanicsburg has found that most parents were able to navigate the change. Derry Township is also coordinating with the Derry Township Parks and Recreation Department regarding necessary changes to the before and after school care programs as they progress through the planning process in the next two years.

In any process as complicated as this one, there are certain to be surprises along the way.  Mechanicsburg has had to adjust their transportation schedule since the change, but has been most surprised by the positive response they’ve received from the community. They offer one piece of advice to any district attempting such a change. Transportation, athletics, and childcare are important, but communication with families is even more so.

Derry Township, just beginning the journey, is listening. A committee of district parents was formed in late-September to provide guidance and insight. They believe that effective communication early, will help to prevent problems later.


Nathan Hackman is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Central Penn Parent. A stay-at-home dad to four boys, one with cerebral palsy, he also writes about his amazing adventure of parenting with a few extra challenges in his blog Daddy’s Home at CentralPennParent.com.

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