Later school start times recommendation gets mixed reactions
WESTPORT — After two years of study, the School Start Time Committee has recommended all Westport schools start 30 minutes later, but skepticism about the effects of such a plan on students and parents remain.
“This is a budget neutral recommendation that was unanimously approved by the committee,” committee Co-Chair Christine Wanner said at the Board of Education meeting on Monday.
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The proposal would have Staples High School’s daily schedule run from 8 a.m. to 2:45 p.m.; Saugatuck Elementary School and the middle schools from 8:30 a.m. to 3:15 p.m.; and Coleytown, Greens Farms, Kings Highway, and Long Lots elementary schools from 9 a.m to 3:45 p.m.
The recommendation comes backed by research that shows adolescents need to sleep later into the morning, regardless of individual bedtimes. The presentation also outlined a list of mental and physical problems that accompany sleep deprivation.
“The research that is out there about adolescent sleep time is undeniable and incredibly compelling,” Wanner said.
Christine Meiers-Schatz, a committee and Representative Town meeting member, highlighted that adolescent sleep phases shift over the years, making it difficult for teens to sleep before 11 p.m. This results in the current start times cutting into students’ sleep cycles.
While adolescents need around eight to 10 hours of sleep, reports show they are getting significantly less.
“The average adolescent gets 6.75 hours of sleep,” Meiers-Schatz said. “With so much of a chunk of missing sleep each night, it’s impossible to catch up sufficiently on the weekend.”
She suggested cutting into the sleep cycle could also drastically affect brain functions, leading to alcohol abuse, drug use and engaging in other risky behaviors.
“This REM sleep creates the difference between stable and unstable mental states for our adolescents,” Meiers-Schatz said.
Ultimately, the 8 a.m. start time recommendation for high school students came as a compromise due to athletics and traffic implications in town. The amount of early dismissals for student athletes on away-game days would also nearly quadruple under this plan.
Parents and town officials commended the committee for their work, but urged the BOE to look at the proposal as a starting point. Many still pushed for high school classes to start at 8:30 a.m.
“I’m speaking only tepidly in favor of this plan because, while very happy we’re shifting later, I really don’t believe this plan goes far enough,” Selectwoman Melissa Kane said. “I urge we try to find a way to push the high school start time closer to the 8:30.”
BOE member Lee Goldstein said while she favored the change, she didn’t want Westport to wait for neighboring towns to reach an 8:30 a.m. start time.
“I would like to put a stake in the sand and say within a certain amount of time we’ll figure out how to get to 8:30 a.m.,” she said. “We take a small step and then we have a real goal in mind.”
However, some parents cautioned the school board on how later start times for the elementary schools could affect parents.
Alexis Bancroft, a Westport parent, said while she supports an 8:30 a.m. start time, concerns remain.
“As a working parent and knowing other single parents, the logistical aspect of trying to get your kid out the door in the early morning is very challenging,” Bancroft said, adding she would have to get personal care for her kids in the morning. “I think the financial burden of that on a certain group of families in Westport is very challenging.”
BOE member Karen Kleine also expressed skepticism of the proposal due to a similar change in Wilton not showing positive results. Kleine noted Wilton students still experienced high rates of anxiety and depression.
“I also spoke to the superintendent in Wilton, and he said very clearly grades didn’t go up,” Kleine said.
Interim Superintendent of Schools David Abbey described the recommendation as a solid step in the right direction, adding the board could always add contingency plans.
“It’s an important step in the right direction,” Abbey said. “It’s important to me to know students’ health will improve.”
With a need for further discussion, the BOE decided to postpone the discussion to a later meeting.