Montgomery County public school officials were deluged Thursday by parents, physicians, counselors, and sleep experts who delivered a simple message: allow high school students to get more sleep by starting school later.
“Chronic sleep loss of teens is at an all-time high,” said psychologist and sleep expert Dr. Daniel Lewin of Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., who said sleep deprivation is a serious public health issue that school officials should move quickly to address.
High schools in Montgomery County Public Schools start at 7:25 a.m., which contributes to everything from the achievement gap that divides county students along economic and ethnic lines, to student depression, obesity, car accidents, migraine headaches and after-school delinquency, according to dozens who testified at a four-and-a-half hour hearing at MCPS headquarters in Rockville.
The school board is scheduled to decide whether to change start times at a Feb. 10 board meeting, board president Patricia O’Neill of Bethesda said. MCPS surveys conducted last year found 78 percent of parents favored a later high school start time.
Cheryl Perry, a parent and expert on school start times, pointed to later start times in nearby Prince George’s County, which she said helped reduce dangerous after-school “idle time” for teens. In Prince George’s, high school start times vary, with some schools starting at 7:45 a.m., but others as late as 9 a.m. “It’s a win in the morning, it’s a win in the afternoon,” Perry said.
A recent decision by school officials in Fairfax County, Va., to delay high school start times until 8 a.m. or later starting next fall also was held up as an example that county schools could replicate.
“We do know sleep deprivation causes all kinds of problems,” said Cecilia Peacock, a parent of three MCPS students and an officer in the U.S. Public Health Service. “We really cannot afford to keep the bell times where they currently stand. There is too much risk.”
There were only a few voices of dissent in what appeared to be a well-orchestrated effort by a group of parents, representing the county chapter of Start School Later, to push for later start times.
MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr has embraced later high school start times, at least in concept. But last year he backed off the issue when proposed changes proved too expensive, coming in at about $21 million in the $2.3 billion school system operating budget. Starr incurred the wrath of parents because his proposals included a longer day for elementary school students. O’Neill, joined by the other board members, asked Starr to develop cheaper options by January.
Starr and his staff offered five different scenarios and said each of the proposals would cost less than $10 million a year, including a no-cost option recommended by Starr.
Maryland health and education officials have encouraged all school systems in the state to examine later start times for high schools, pointing to various benefits to students, including improved academic performance. And the American Academy of Pediatrics has also encouraged later start times for teens, saying the risks to their health and well-being are too great to ignore.
In the latest proposals, Starr endorsed a 20-minute no-cost delay in start times for high schools and middle schools, which now start at 7:55 a.m., and elementary schools, which begin at 8:50 a.m. or 9:15 a.m. His proposal garnered no support at Thursday’s hearing, with critics saying it did little to resolve the problem. Many who testified urged an 8:30 a.m. start time for high schools, even though they recognized it could cost the system more because of the possible need to pay for additional buses and drivers.
Among the handful of speakers who discouraged later start times for high schools was Eva Sullivan, who teaches English as a Second Language (ESOL) at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington. She said she saw firsthand the effect of the early start on students, but said the students she teaches prefer the current schedule.
“Most of them have jobs after school. Many fast-food shifts start at 3 p.m. Others have to take care of younger siblings,” she said. “I hope you will consider the point of view of many who are not here,” she said.
Allison Erdman, an Advanced Placement biology teacher at Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, also opposed a later start for high schools. She said doing so would complicate the commutes of teachers and staff members, putting them into rush hour traffic. “This would significantly increase the commute times of many teachers who live outside Montgomery County,” she said. “Many of us cannot afford to live here.”
Joe Nelson, a Germantown parent who applauded Erdman’s testimony, said in an interview that he did not want to see start times change. He said the changes could affect athletics, students’ after-school jobs, and the second jobs that many bus drivers schedule around their pickups and drop offs of students in the mornings and afternoons.
“Sometimes it takes two jobs to live here in Montgomery County,” he said.
Written comments on the proposals to change bell times may be submitted through Feb. 2 to school officials at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: The original version of this article listed the wrong email address where the public could send comments. It has been corrected.