Despite overwhelming and longstanding research that supports the idea of starting school for teenagers after, at least, 8:30 AM, many school districts across the country have met with resistance whenever they have tried to implement recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Now under consideration in the Maryland General Assembly is House Bill 39, which would create a three-tier certification system for school systems that are trying to adjust start times to those that are more consistent with circadian rhythms during adolescence.
Delegate Aruna Miller from Montgomery County brought a panel to the House Ways and Means committee hearing on January 29 to testify about the wisdom of the bill she introduced: Rather than requiring school systems to change their first bell to a more appropriate time, the bill would create a recognition system for school systems that make an effort.
Tier #1 of this certification, called in the bill’s initial draft an “Orange Ribbon” certification, would be awarded to school systems that study the issue or conduct various outreach activities intended to gauge community support for such a change.
The second tier would be awarded to school systems that make a small change in bell times, not necessarily in strict compliance with the AAP or CDC recommendations, but in the right direction. These systems, like Montgomery County, which this year made start times across the district about 20 minutes later, may be in an experimental stage.
Finally, the top tier is reserved for those school systems that start teens’ days at school at or after 8:30, which is the time recommended by the AAP.
Evidence shows that starting school, especially high school, at or after 8:30 would benefit students academically, emotionally, and physically. No one—in schools, communities, or government—denies or even disputes the research, which has been on the published scientific record for decades.
But it takes more than good research to move school systems after their ways have become an integral part of our daily routines. A similar bill failed last year in the Maryland state Senate, after passing the House by a big majority.
Pushback has come, on a national and local level, from community members who worry that teens won’t be home after a later dismissal time to watch younger siblings while parents are still at work, that parents will have to make adjustments to work schedules in order to drop off or pick up their kids at school, and that high school students won’t be able to get as many hours in at a job needed to help support their families.
From school systems, the main objection to adjusting start times has been a financial one. The legislative analysis for HB 39, written by Scott P Gates, had this to say:
Howard County had studied the option of shifting start times for high schools from 7:25 to 8:15 a.m., finding that this would increase by 299 the number of school buses required, and therefore, would result in additional costs of $19.2 million. Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS) and Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) both studied several options. While both systems found that some options would generate substantial additional costs (as much as $8.4 million for AACPS and $12.0 million for MCPS), both found that options that delay all (elementary, middle, and high school) start times by an equal amount can result in little or no significant increase in school system costs.
Some districts in Maryland have clearly found ways of doing this that have a net financial impact of zero. And logically, why should it cost more to transport the same number of kids in the same number of buses to school at 8:30 instead of 7:30?
What HB 39 will do, I believe, is to give school leaders something to work toward, a small token, that tells their students and communities that they have brought their fortitude, creativity, and leadership to bear in creating a better school climate.
By recognizing school systems that put the matter to a test, the state here is encouraging school systems to do the right thing for kids and find ways to cut costs and minimize the impact such changes will have on the community served by the school.
It’s a lot of work to adjust start times, as Ms Miller told the committee, but no one can deny the research and we had better hear good reasons for ignoring warnings from the AAP and CDC. We do in fact have some good reasons for keeping existing and too-early start times in place, and by creating a certification system like the one in HB 39, the state would encourage school systems to overcome those objections with input from community members.
Later school start times need to start happening in Maryland.
One parent who attended public schools in Anne Arundel County, where the first high school period starts at 7:17 AM, testified and said that although she was in her high school’s gifted and talented program, the early start times in the county cast a fog over her schooldays.
“I was among the best and brightest in my school. … I didn’t party, didn’t hang out with friends, didn’t stay up late. I was still tired all the time,” she told the House Ways and Means committee. “I don’t remember falling asleep in school; I was told by others that I did.”
She’s now concerned for her daughter, who will start high school in the fall and will have to wake up by about 5:30 in order to catch a bus at 6:30.
“As the days shorten, she won’t see daylight at the bus stop from August 29 through mid-April,” she said about her daughter, now in eighth grade. “Through the winter months, she won’t see daylight when she walks into school in the morning.”
Implementing better start times for teens in school, then, comes down to jumping over several family and financial hurdles, which exist, to be sure, requiring a spot of creativity. But it will be worth it.