Westport studies changing school start times

Photo of Justin Papp

WESTPORT — A group of parents, town officials, school administrators and one student are looking closely at Westport school start times and the potential risks and rewards of allowing students to sleep more and starting later.

The 21-member School Start Time Committee had its third monthly meeting Feb. 8 to discuss potential shifts in school hours that could be proposed to the Board of Education as soon as June for adoption at the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year.

At the helm of the community-wide debate is Representative Town Meeting (RTM) member and School Start Time Committee member Christine Meiers Schatz, who began advocating for a later start time last spring and has been vocal at Board of Education meetings since.

“Most people don’t know that sleep is critical to learning, both basic learning, like memory, and higher level learning, like creativity and STEM skills,” said Meiers Schatz. She added that more sleep in teens reduces the risk of fatal automobile accidents and suicide. Other local districts including Greenwich and Newtown moved back their start times for the current school year.

Superintendent of Schools Colleen Palmer said that as part of the district’s Strategic Plan, the committee was formed to explore later start times to benefit students.

“With the robust body of research relating to the sleep patterns of adolescents, our district, like many others, is now examining the start times of all of its schools,” said Palmer.

Palmer appointed

Mike Rizzo, director of pupil services, and Christine Wanner, health and physical education coordinator, to head the committee and assembled a “broad, cross-representational group” to take the issue on.

According to Schatz, the committee has so far hired a transportation consultant to study the impact of bus routes at various start times.

“We have to look at this as a systems approach. How will a change in start time affect the entire community?” Palmer said.

Palmer said that the committee was looking at a “zone of reasonableness” for potential start time changes, likely within an hour of the high school’s current opening time, though Palmer said that could balloon to 65 or 75 minutes depending on bus study results, some of which are expected at the March meeting.

Schatz also hopes to invite a medical professional to provide the committee information on the risks of adolescent sleep deprivation.

To assess the impact on the community, the committee will break into seven subcommittees: Transportation and Traffic; Student Health, Wellness, Learning Impacts; Employment Impact; Stakeholder Impact; Lessons Learned; Athletics and Co-curricular and Continuing Education; and Town Considerations.

“In implementing something like this, there are a lot of things you have to think about and you want to work with the community and make sure that, for example, after-school activities and athletics, have a chance to think about how they want to adjust their schedules,” Meiers Schatz said.

The committee will meet again on March 8.

justin.papp@scni.com; @justinjpapp1