Dr. Judith Owens
Faculty member of Boston Children’s Hospital Sleep Center; professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School; Beverly resident
The research, data, and facts are irrefutable. There is a silent epidemic of adolescent sleep deprivation in every state in the United States — including Massachusetts — that negatively impacts teens’ mental and physical health, well-being, safety, and academic and athletic performance.
Imagine, if you will, existing in a “toxic environment” that has the potential to increase the risk of car accidents, sports injuries, symptoms of depression and anxiety, alcohol and substance use, obesity, and impaired immune function. The “environment” in this case is middle and high schools and the “toxin” to which students are exposed daily: early school start times (often before 7:30 a.m.). Then imagine there is an evidence-based, well-established solution that could reduce those risks.
Politics notwithstanding, nothing should deter parents, teachers, school administrators, school boards, and yes, state legislators, from enacting steps to mitigate those risks. These unhealthy start times not only rob teens of needed sleep, but force them to wake up and function in school and behind the wheel at their brain’s equivalent of 3 a.m. — for up to six years at a stretch. Our job therefore, as advocates for our children, our students, and our communities is to do the right thing.
While the “why” isn’t in question, the “how” of school start time change remains complicated and even contentious for many school districts that struggle with similar issues, including parents’ work schedules, child care, and transportation costs. That common challenge is just one reason statewide legislation — like that enacted in California and actively being considered in New York and New Jersey — is the best pathway to success.
We need statewide legislation that includes funding for school districts and offering resources that can help them make the change and avoids a district-by-district approach. After all, isn’t the right thing to do for our children’s health and well-being the same in Brockton and Boston, Dover and Dedham, Framingham and Wayland?
Massachusetts rightfully prides itself on its long history of innovation and leadership, and willingness to make investments to improve the lives of its citizens. Our wealth of educational institutions and superb health care are symbols of that dedication to excellence; let us honor this legacy by supporting healthy school start times for the next generation and beyond.
Halifax Elementary School Committee chair; member of Silver Lake Regional School Committee
Requiring a later start time for middle and high school students would consequently result in an earlier start time for elementary school students.
This would directly impact the day of my entire family. I have a senior, a middle schooler, and a kindergartener. The start of the day for my older two begins when they leave for school at 6:30 a.m. When their classes conclude for the day, they come home to get their little brother off the bus.
Both my husband and I work full time, so most days there is no one else home to greet my little guy. Having my older children available to help after school is a huge benefit to our family.
The ripple effects of changing the start time would not only be an inconvenience, it would add a financial burden with the cost of after-school child care.
Once the boys are settled after school, my senior is off to practice for high school sports. Several days a week she races home after school sports to grab a quick dinner and head off to club sports or work.
By the time she gets home from her day, it is sometimes close to 10 p.m. before she begins her homework. I could not imagine her having less time at the end of her school day, which would result from her school adopting a later start time.
And philosophically, I believe in small government and support local control. Every school district has elected school committees tasked with representing the needs of their community’s residents.
School committees are responsible for creating a budget, setting district policies, negotiating with employee unions, and setting the school calendar.
School start and end times, professional development days, and instructional time is all negotiated or voted on by the school committee. If the state required school districts to abide by start times that may be different from what is already contractually agreed upon, that could impact bargaining.
When state mandates are placed upon them, districts are often left scrambling to meet the new guidelines. This presents an unforeseen hardship for those districts.
The state government should allow the elected members of each school committee to determine what is best for the students and families in their districts.
As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact email@example.com.