The Search for Sleep

What would a delayed start time look like?

March 21, 2020

For Greylock student Alayna Schwarzer, sleeping and studying don’t always go hand in hand. 

“I find it frustrating that health classes and teachers preach about getting enough sleep, yet us students seemingly have to make the choice between getting good grades or an adequate amount of sleep,” Schwarzer said. “One thing I’ve noticed about the school year is that my sleep dramatically decreases.” 

According to the National Sleep Foundation, teenagers should be getting eight to ten hours of sleep every night. But, a study showed that only 15% of teenagers actually get the recommended amount of sleep. The early Mount Greylock start time has often come up in regards to the amount of sleep Greylock students are getting. The Echo delved into the importance of sleep for teenagers, and what students, teachers, and the administration has to say in response to the school start time.

Sleep is vital to everyone’s health and well-being, but especially to that of teenagers and students. Matt Carter, a Biology professor at Williams College, studies sleep and its effects on the brain. 

“There are literally thousands of scientific studies showing that, during sleep, several body systems improve in health and function,” he said.  

When sleeping, the mind is repairing itself and getting ready for the day ahead. Sleep is incredibly important for teenagers, because their bodies and minds are growing quickly. When they are not getting an adequate amount of sleep, their minds and bodies don’t have as much time to do what it needs to be able to perform beneficially. Marc McDermott, a local pediatrician, said, “there’s this theory that when the brain becomes somewhat less metabolically active, Glial cells are around removing waste and fixing things for the next day,” he said. “If you don’t give them enough time to do their job, the brain can’t actually be as ready to do its ‘thinking’ the next day.”

A teenager’s circadian rhythm, or internal body clock, pleads them to stay up later and sleep later. This is because the brain hormone melatonin is produced later at night in teens than kids and adults. Teenager’s bodies are not designed to wake up early, but many high schools start early in the morning, forcing their body clocks off their natural schedules. Despite the fact that young kids naturally wake up earlier than teenagers, elementary schools often start earlier than middle and high schools.

The American Journal of Managed Care conducted a study in 2019 to evaluate the correlation between sleep and academic performance in students. The study found that “better sleep—specifically, higher quality, longer duration, and greater consistency of sleep—was associated with higher scores on quizzes and midterm exams.”

Along with just being tired, many issues can arise when someone has not gotten an adequate amount of sleep. “When sleep deprived, humans can’t fight foreign infections as well, and often get sick,” Carter said. “They also can’t think as clearly or retain as much information.” 

Mr. Agostini, an Eighth grade Social Studies teacher, has noticed this. “I think students in the first two periods of the day are incredibly tired and overworked,” he said. “You can definitely tell the effect.”

“The nights when I go to bed earlier than usual or sleep in, like on a day with a delay, I feel much more attentive,” Sophomore Kate Swann said.

Sleep deprivation can also pose health risks, including obesity, depression, and high blood pressure. 

“There are a lot of different studies, each of which can demonstrate a poor night’s sleep over time, or actually sometimes a single poor night’s sleep, are linked with things you would not want to have for your health,” McDermott said.

Making middle and high schools’ start times later has often been presented as a way for students to get more sleep. The American Academy of Pediatrics has strongly advocated for this, seeing insufficient sleep in teenagers as an important public health issue. 

The article stated, “a substantial body of research has now demonstrated that delaying school start times is an effective countermeasure to chronic sleep loss and has a wide range of potential benefits to students with regard to physical and mental health, safety, and academic achievement.”

Recently, many schools have been moving their starting times to later in the day due to the newly discovered information relating to the importance of sleep for teenagers. California Governor Gavin Newsom just passed a bill into law that required high schools to start no earlier than 8:30 AM, and middle schools no later than 8:00 AM. This law will not go into effect until 2022, and does not include rural school districts, but is raising the question of whether later start times can effectively benefit everyone.

Many states have attempted to do as California has done, but none have been as successful; California is the first and only state in the nation to push the school start times back. 

Anthony Portantino, a Democratic State Senator wrote the bill. In an interview with the New York Times, he said. “Everybody is looking for a magic bullet with education, one that cuts across all demographics, all ethnicities and that actually has a positive, measurable increase in test scores, attendance and graduation rates without costing money. And this is it.”

In Massachusetts, school districts set their own start times, but there has been a recent push to change that. ‘Start School Later’ is an advocacy group promoting student health and education, and the importance of sleep in relation to this. The group has recommended 8:30 AM as the earliest start time for middle and high schools in Massachusetts. 

Around a dozen school districts in Massachusetts have pushed back their start times, while many have been reluctant to switch. 

In a school-wide survey, 41% of students claimed to feel sleep deprived everyday, and an additional 46.5% feel sleep deprived 1 – 4 days out of the school week. When given the opportunity to suggest a start time that the students felt would benefit them the most significantly, the vast majority of students decided that 8:40 AM, one hour later than Mount Greylock’s current start time, would be the most advantageous. 

Leaving school later in the day could pose new problems such as making it to work on time or ending sports too late. However, 51.4% of the students who took part in the survey believed that they “think starting later is a good idea, and having after school activities go later is NOT an issue,” as opposed to the 24.3% who thought the opposite and the remainder who had no preference. 

There were several responses explaining that if school were to start around a half hour later, it wouldn’t make too much of a negative impact, especially if after school commitments, such as practice or rehearsal, were cut slightly shorter as well. 

Senior Saville Keyes said, “there would most likely be fewer tardies, and our motivation in school and academic success would probably improve as well.”

A number of students feel that starting school even just thirty minutes later would help them focus in school. 

“I think that if we had it [the start time] like 15 or 30 minutes later, and then had practices after school still end at the same time, so just 30 minutes less, it would be perfect,” Eighth Grader Celina Savage said. “With the rising levels of depression and anxiety in school, and just the stress of going to school, which is something that every student experiences, having those extra 15 or so minutes can affect a lot of the school day.”

One concern with the current start time is that students from Lanesborough have to leave earlier than those commuting from Williamstown. 

Freshman Ben McDounagh said, “I don’t think the start time is fair because kids in Lanesborough have to get to the school at the same time and it’s closer for kids in Williamstown than Lanesbourough.” 

Several students shared the possible solution that if the required PE class was the last block for everybody, those who played an afterschool sport could go straight to practice, while the rest finish the day with PE, so that everyone meets their physical activity requirement without needing to stay in school later. This idea poses new questions, such as what students would do if they wanted to participate in a non-athletic after school activity or how this would conflict with the coach’s schedules.

Other students, including Junior Hannah Gilooly, suggested that teachers be assigned certain nights each week that they are allowed to give homework so that students can better manage their workload. 

Teachers also have strong opinions about the school start time. 

“I am completely in support of a later start time,” Eighth Grade English teacher Ms. Sulzmann said. “I feel we know a lot more about adolescent brain development than we did 50/100 years ago, but we’re still not following the recommendations of the information. We know that adolescents stay up later and they need to sleep in later. They are wired that way. I see that my first two classes every day are much less awake than my later ones.”

Not all teachers feel this way, though. Math teacher Ms. Barber said, “ I do like the start time; it is later than some high schools in the district already, and the reason why it can’t be any later is because of the light outside with athletic events and practice times.”

Principal McDonald explained that the idea that a later start time helps students get more sleep is only valid assuming that students actually use the extra time to sleep. 

“Some of the criticism is that if we have a later start time, students will just stay up later at night; they won’t actually use that extra time to sleep,” MacDonald said.

Some students expressed concern that a later start time would interfere with sports. 

“I do not think starting later would be a good idea because while it would feel beneficial in the morning, the students who have athletics or clubs after school would have less time to do homework and would work later,” said Eighth Grader Ava Anagnos. “They would end up getting the same amount of sleep they would if it was early.” 

Mount Greylock sports teams compete with other schools in the county, so having a later end time could cause logistical issues. Although students would be getting more time to sleep, they might have to miss school to participate in games and races, which would interfere with academics. 

Along with the concern of athletics and after school activities, the bus schedule must be taken into consideration. Both WES and LES, the two elementary schools, use the same buses as Mount Greylock. If the Greylock time were to be pushed forward, the elementary schools would have to start earlier. 

“We have one transportation event for the middle/high school kids, and then one for the elementary school, so there’s a practical reason why we can’t go all at the same time,” MacDonald said.

If Greylock and the elementary schools were to switch start times, there are concerns about the younger children getting home and not having their older sibling there to take care of them. 

Superintendent Kim Grady said, “Some of the feedback we receive is parents need the older sibling to get the younger sibling off the bus in the afternoon.” 

Many parents and guardians rely on their older children to be at home and watch their younger children, but if the schools were to switch times, there would be a window of time when the younger sibling is home and the older is not.

Despite these concerns regarding the topic, studies have shown students would get more sleep, which in turn would help them focus during school. 

Although new research has shown the benefits of a later start time, the administration has not truly stepped forward to address the issue. Instead, they have focused attention on other mental health initiatives.

“I have to say we’ve had other projects that took our focus away,” MacDonald said. “As we look for solutions to support students I think we’ve looked at ones that we know that we can implement right away.”

When asked if she thought a later start time would be beneficial for students, Grady said, “I can say comfortably that there is more to it than just the start time. If the start time is what everybody is seeing as the most important factor, I would start there and work with everybody on that.” 

In terms of discussions with the School Committee, she said, “ I think every year we talk about it, and every year we end up back where we are with, well, this is what we have.”

“We have to have enough research from all of this, and factor in the bus company, to be able to run it by the school committee,” Grady said. If the school start time were to be pushed back, it would most likely not be implemented for next September.

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