Letter: Start School Later Moves Stress to the End of the Day

Open letter from Sharon Sunoo submitted to GFP, Sept 18, 2016

Dear Chairwoman Erickson, Members of the Board of Education, Dr. Corda, Dr. Carabillo and Dr. Winters,

This is perhaps my fourth letter to you since starting the organization, GHS Families Against Late Dismissal in June. Frankly, when I began, I had no idea the number of enormous impacts that could exist surrounding the Start School Late (SSL) initiative if it were to be implemented as is.  Unfortunately, none of these issues have been formally addressed even after June’s BOE meeting which to some extent allowed for self-checking and evaluation to take place in order to responsibly look at the SSL in light of the various and large implications to students, families and the schools.

Instead of talking about each of them, I ask you to take a step back.  I realize that there is a great deal of rhetoric and slanted comments from both sides but I am hoping you will consider what is being said here.  I believe we can all agree that today, children are dealing with performance pressures whether academic, extra curricular, etc. at levels that are extreme and in some cases harmful to them.

Medical research and studies have repeatedly shown how stress causes a multitude of physical and mental health concerns which work against these kids. According to American Psychological Association teens with “…chronic (long-term) stress can cause anxiety, high blood pressure and a weakened immune system, and can contribute to diseases such as depression, obesity and heart disease.”  We are missing a critical opportunity to address the real problem facing our children today by ignoring causes of their stress and anxiety.  SSL, as I will point out later is not the silver bullet. It may contribute to the solution but if it is not properly administered with sensitivity to the compression of end of day, the district is adding to the overall problem of stress and anxiety of our children.  I am asking for balance.  I am asking for compromise.  The one size fits all or the all or nothing strategy of SSL is irresponsible.  And here is why.

Clearly, there are schools that have decided to incorporate the SSL program.  There are schools that are similar to Greenwich High School and seem to be located in towns similar to Greenwich.  These schools seem to be operating as best as they can with all things considered.  At a minimum, you would think that these schools because of their “better” schedule to incorporate sleep recommendations would be achieving higher levels of performance or certainly appear to be just operating “better” overall.  Tragically, however, some such schools are currently being investigated by the CDC for teen suicide clusters—20 suicides annually.

In the Palo Alto area of California, there are three high schools.  Each of these schools HAVE start times that range from 8:00am to 8:45am.  In the CDC’s review it appears that sleep deprivation was not noted as a possible cause.  In fact it was not mentioned.

Instead, other factors were discussed—missing school, drugs, alcohol and the insurmountable pressure to perform.  One famous former student, Jeremy Lin who attended Palo Alto High school says,“…[he] as a freshman sat next to a classmate who committed suicide, as did one of his friends the following year. From his Facebook post:

The pressure to succeed in high school is all too familiar to me. I distinctly remember being a freshman in high school, overwhelmed by the belief that my GPA over the next four years would make or break my life. My daily thought process was that every homework assignment, every project, every test could be the difference. The difference between a great college and a mediocre college. The difference between success and failure. The difference between happiness and misery.”

We are so fortunate that this issue has not come to Greenwich in a manner that requires the CDC to investigate nor am I suggesting that late start leads to suicide.  However, that does not mean that we can ignore real warning signs.  The similarities between the students at Palo Alto and Greenwich students are obvious.  Ask the children how they feel about a later dismissal.  See what added stress that will cause families and students.

I believe SSL has drawn more attention to the physical and mental needs of our students.  But it misses the big point–find real solutions that address our children’s feelings of tremendous pressure and anxiety. Answering questions like what are we systemically doing to perpetuate it and how can we tangibly help children when they feel trapped and inadequate.  Sleep will help to some extent but unless you implement this properly, you are turning up the pressure in making students deal with 60 to 70 minute early releases for athletes needing to play in an away game, putting them on a bus for an extra hour with a dismissal time of 3.15 versus 2.15, limiting JV and Freshmen sport experience because of limited fields and daylight and thus taking away opportunities for these kids to decompress and find satisfaction in something outside of their classroom and limiting connection to other students, staff and teachers.

As you evaluate the SSL debate, Members of the Board of Education please look at the totality of the issue—the health and well-being of our children.  By only looking at SSL and ignoring dismissal, you are simply shifting severe stress from the front part of the day to the end of the day. Don’t make the end of day more pressure filled by compressing the time for them.  This is especially true for children who care about their academic (and in some cases athletic) performance. Before moving forward with an SSL program, please demand for solutions to reduce the impact on dismissal time. Please don’t forget the lessons of schools similar to Greenwich in Palo Alto that have late start times.

There is absolutely no study that shows that start time is more important than the end time to a student.  Both are equally important to the same child.  Please treat them that way.