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A York County School Board member wants the division to consider a later start time for high schools.
Cindy Kirschke brought the issue up at the board’s Feb. 25 meeting. She believes the division needs to explore how it could push back the beginning of the high school day, which currently starts when the first bell rings at 7:20 a.m. She is hoping to gauge the interest of York County parents.
In an email to constituents following the meeting, she asked for their opinions on the issue. On Friday, she sent another email, reporting the reactions of nearly 40 people who responded, both positively and negatively, to the idea.
Research shows teenagers need more sleep, she said, but changing the start time is complicated by a number of factors, including bus schedules, parents’ work schedules and after-school activities.
Kirschke heard a range of reactions from parents, students and educators. One high school student shared that after visiting a doctor because she was struggling to concentrate in class, she was diagnosed with sleep deprivation. Another parent was concerned about teenagers having at least three hours of unsupervised time after school is released at 2 p.m.
Other parents worried how a later start time would affect after-school athletics, band practices and part-time jobs. Parents also were nervous about young children standing at bus stops in the dark on early winter mornings.
Kirschke said a doctor approached her about exploring the issue shortly after she was elected in the fall of 2011. The doctor said teenagers need nine hours of sleep a night; fatigue limits the ability to learn. The doctor also said teenagers’ circadian rhythms shift from childhood, keeping them awake until 11 p.m. when the sleep hormone melatonin kicks in and remains in their bodies until 8 a.m.
She expected elementary school parents would be against the change, but the issue came up again a few weeks ago when she was volunteering at Coventry Elementary School. Parents said their young kids wake up early, then spend two hours waiting for school to start at 9 a.m. Changing the schedule could eliminate the need for before-school care, currently necessary because working parents have to leave the house before 8:45 a.m.
“They described how exhausted their young children were when arriving home at 4 p.m., then rushing out to an activity or lesson to come home for dinner and be in bed by 8 p.m.,” Kirschke said. “I realized that now was the time to begin dialogue and gauge public opinion on school start times, for we might truly be harming all ages, not just teenagers, with the current schedule.”
The typical teenager’s schedule is much more packed than most parents remember from their own adolescence. “I thought I was active, but my kids have so much more opportunity to participate on a higher level in sports and academics,” Kirschke said.
One of the biggest challenges to changing the schedule would be adjusting the division’s bus transportation. Currently, the division uses a three-tier bus system, picking up and delivering students in waves to their respective schools. The tiers begin with high school students, dropping them off at school by 7 a.m., then pick up middle school students and finish with elementary school students.
“I think everyone wants an 8 to 3 schedule. That is probably ideal as it allows high school students extra sleep, but hours in the afternoon for extracurricular activities,” Kirschke said. “Unfortunately, we can’t afford all the buses needed to accommodate it.”
The increased use of virtual education could also present opportunities for more schedule flexibility for high school students. “I would be very open to allowing students to attend school second block and complete a virtual class,” she said.
Kirschke has been following the debate in Fairfax County, where parents hired an outside transportation specialist to design a new bell schedule as an alternative. Since 2004, Fairfax parents have worked to study the impact of early high school start times on teenagers through their advocacy group, SLEEP (Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal). In 2012, the Fairfax County School Board passed a resolution recognizing the group’s research and setting a goal to start high schools after 8 a.m. They also directed the superintendent to identify and report on school divisions with later start times; they found 72 of Virginia’s 95 counties start high school at 8 a.m. or later.
For now, Kirschke is interested in gathering parent and student input, possibly through a more formal survey. “While most people have supported a change in the start times, some have been very opposed. It is a difficult issue,” she said. “If it was easy, Fairfax would have already changed the start times instead of talking about it for years.”