Letter: Greenwich School Administration Must Not Prioritize Athletic Schedules Over Health and Well-being of All Students.

Letter to the Editor submitted by Valerie Erde, April 18, 2018

The Greenwich Public Schools administration is trying to create a case for backsliding on the later school start time at Greenwich High School by prioritizing the wants of adults, over the needs of kids, and by favoring the concerns of a small subset of athletic parents over health and learning for all GHS students.

The GPS administration is clearly exploring cutting valuable sleep time before having accurately and specifically quantified the issues, and without having thoroughly explored creative solutions that have worked in similar school districts around the country – solutions that reconcile the needs of various stakeholders while still adhering to the minimum, medically recommended start time of 8:30.

In a correct effort to collect pre- and post- start time change information for future evaluation, GPS conducted two surveys: one in May 2017, another in October of 2017. The administration then hired contract research firm Westat to create a report “School Start Time Impact Analysis,” cobbling together information from these two methodologically suspect surveys, plus some other ”data.” Though Dr. Gildea stated that GPS used foremost sleep researcher Dr. Kyla Wahlstrom’s survey; the methodology, and resulting data in Westat’s report do not resemble Dr. Wahlstrom’s work.

Westat even wrote disclaimers to its own analyses: ‘[i]nterpreting and relying on this information must be done with caution. Westat has not run any validity tests for this survey and the results may be impacted by changes in season and time of the school year; the May surveys represents near the end of the school year while October represents the beginning.”

Exactly. Seniors in May are enjoying spring and the freedom of being into college; seniors in October are stressed out applying to college. And for all students, it’s not valid to compare May to October data for numerous reasons including seasonal variations in mood, national depression trends, and episodic events such as …..adjusting to a start time change. If we are to be a data-driven district, this is unacceptable.

Equally concerning is that it’s clear from the uneven application of standards for quantifying, presenting, and evaluating lost instructional time, the administration is prioritizing athletic schedules over the health and well-being for all students.

At the March 22nd BOE meeting, Dr. Gildea said, “We cannot have students missing academic time to go and do other activities.”

Of course we want to minimize instructional time loss for all students. But even prior to bell time changes, many groups of GHS students were losing much more instructional time in a “season” than athletes do now.

The problem is that the administration has not provided an accurate and specific accounting of exactly how many students (not teams) are impacted by early dismissals, how much they are each impacted, and whether or not there is any pedagogical evidence that occasional early dismissals over an 8-week period for some athletes are more harmful than entire day absences for the many other students who miss time for other optional clubs and activities.

According to the Westat report, athletes missed on average 170 minutes (2.8 hours) instructional time due to away game dismissals, but we still don’t have specifics including how many non-athletes are losing the same or much more time. More than 100 band students “lost” two whole days of school – more than 700 minutes (11.7 hours) – way more than a 3-season athlete – for an enriching, but optional trip. And Joe Roberto of the Greenwich Highway Division told the new School Start Time Committee that with the later start times, the schools averted two confirmed snow delays –a gain of four hours of instructional time for all GPS students. It’s not sufficient to say there are “lots of athletes” missing time. It’s also inaccurate and irresponsible to imply that 600+ fall athletes each lost 170 minutes (2.8 hours). Looking at the GHS Cardinals website, it’s clear that early dismissals vary a lot depending on the team: Varsity Football players don’t even have weekday early dismissals. During any given “season,” more than 2,000 (75%) GHS students are not even participating in athletics. The magnitude of impact matters and it must be accurately portrayed.

Music and academic team students have always missed full days for various optional events and meets. There was never a concern prior to start time change for lost instructional time caused by those activities; students were expected to catch up/make up work – as were athletes. The administration seems to be implying that post start time change, athletes can’t or shouldn’t have to.

Instead of creatively addressing how to help a small group of athletes who miss time, they want to adjust the morning bell which will harm all students – including athletes.

While rolling back start time to 8:00 or 8:15 may seem minimal, it isn’t. With a seemingly insignificant change to 8:15, for example, a few thousand GHS students would lose 15 minutes of sleep per day for 180 days, or 45 hours of sleep per year, but only a few hundred students per “season” would gain two hours of class time. And if you roll back the start time, hundreds of students who go in before school for clubs and academic classes will have to go in even earlier. Why was this not included in the data?

Sports have an 8-week season; these classes/activities have a 38-week season. The only thing that should be on the table at this point is determining how to more optimally adjust to the healthy later time.

1) Stop using the excuse of early dismissals for some for an 8-week period, as a reason to rob all students – including athletes – of important sleep for 38 weeks. Explore creative scheduling alternatives as other high schools have done such as eliminating rotating blocks and moving PE/Health/Electives to the end of the day to minimize lost time in core academics.

2) Stop blaming start time for student stress; it isn’t the culprit and cutting sleep isn’t the answer.

Focus on improving other stressors such as exam and homework amounts, spacing, and scheduling. Give students more time to complete assignments on the occasional nights they get home late from school events.

3) Stop using the excuse of traffic to rob students of sleep. Dr. Winters recently stated that traffic around GHS was bad even prior start time change. Pursue other solutions such as getting more students on the bus and re-imagining teacher and student parking.

4) Start promoting the positives – as Dr. Gildea says. Other 8:30 high schools from Maine to Illinois to California have sent out success articles and videos, and have even created sleep education programs to support their students.

The administration needs to prioritize healthy sleep and enjoyable learning for our teens. They should be supporting our students by championing this wonderful evidence-based, medically correct change. It’s simply premature to recommend any morning bell change at this time.