Opinion submitted by Jim Healy of Riverside. Healy is the parent of a middle school student and a high school student in Greenwich Public Schools, Dec 3, 2017
Greenwich moved to later school start times in September. As we grapple with implementation issues related to such things as increased morning traffic, late buses, early dismissal for athletes, and the lack of adequate field lighting at Greenwich High School, we should not lose sight of the big picture.
Specifically, I would emphasize the following “big picture” points:
No. 1: The Board of Education voted to change high school start times because it served the greater good, which is the health and education of our high school students. In making the change, they had the opportunity to meet with one of the world’s leading sleep experts, Dr. Judith Owens of Harvard. Dr. Owens described the compelling scientific, medical, and empirical evidence for an 8:30am start time to them and urged the BOE to adopt the change as a matter of urgent adolescent public health.
Given all that we now know about adolescent sleep biology and health, Dr. Owens has said: “To do nothing is to do harm.”
That is precisely why pediatricians from almost every pediatric group practice in Greenwich signed an open letter to the BOE urging the adoption of an 8:30 start time.
The BOE knew the change in start times would present challenges for some constituencies. Teachers would have to adjust their personal schedules and daily commutes, athletes would have shorter daylight hours in the fall and get home later from practice and games, some parents would have to adjust their drop-off times or their preschool or after-school day care, and traffic might get heavier until flows adjusted to the new normal.
No solution would be perfect for all school stakeholders. So the BOE had to make a choice as to what would serve the greater good. They put student health and education first, ahead of inconveniences and other competing interests. That was the correct decision. “To do nothing is to do harm.” So that takes us to implementing the change.
No. 2. The implementation problems Greenwich has confronted over the last three months have been solved by hundreds and hundreds of school districts throughout the United States. These school districts range in size from huge districts such as Seattle to small districts such as our neighbor in Wilton. Every one of these districts experienced initial problems related to such things as transportation, traffic, and athletic scheduling — and virtually every single district successfully overcame those initial implementation issues. Some were quick fixes; others took more time. But they got it done.
It would be a massive failure if Greenwich school leadership lost its nerve and failed to overcome these typical implementation problems by backtracking to a start time before 8:30 a.m. for the high school. And that failure would set back student health.
No. 3. Progress has been made on a number of fronts. It is easy to focus on the negatives, but there have also been successes. Bus ridership is up sharply, presumably because students no longer have to choose between catching a very early bus or driving to school so they can get more sleep. With the addition of three extra buses and some route fine-tuning, 100 percent of buses are now arriving before bell time in the morning. The timing of traffic lights has also been adjusted to ease morning congestion. This is clearly still work in progress but progress has clearly been made.
No. 4. Perfection is the enemy of good. Some parents of athletes have argued strenuously that the BOE should not even have voted to change to later school start times before it had solved the athletic field lighting issue.
I completely disagree. If you place a priority on student health and educational outcomes for the greatest number of students, you cannot possibly wait until every problem has been addressed for every constituency. To do so would have been a huge disservice to the vast majority of students.
Participating in athletics is an elective activity. School is not. The BOE and school administrators should not impose the blunt instrument of early school start times on the entire student body in order to alleviate problems for a subset of athletes and hurt everyone else in the process.
Rather, the BOE and school administration should seek to surgically design solutions for the affected athletes to the extent they can. Some schools have altered academic scheduling for athletes so that open periods and non-core elective courses are clustered during the last period. Other schools have tailored PE classes for athletes so athletes can get sport-specific conditioning done during the school day. Still others have shortened the academic day. GHS adjusted the block schedule this year so that early dismissals would not be concentrated in the same classes. Every school is different, but the point is to find the specific pressure points for the athletes and find creative ways to relieve them.
No. 5. 8:30 a.m. means 8:30 a.m. Rolling back start times to 8 a.m., as some have suggested, would be unconscionable. All the leading medical authorities and experts in the United States have spoken in one voice recommending an 8:30 start time or later. Not a single sleep expert has suggested that 8 a.m. is “good enough.” One of the main reasons for this is that REM sleep, which is involved in the process of storing memories, learning, and balancing moods, cycles more frequently in the latter stages of sleep. So the last hour of sleep is crucial. As Dr. Charles Czeisler of Harvard points out in his lectures, early school start times force a daily truncation of a student’s sleep cycle, which systematically and cumulatively deprives the student of the REM sleep he/she needs.
To move start times from 8:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. would be to knowingly and deliberately compromise the health of the vast majority of students. No sleep expert thinks 8 a.m. is “good enough,” nor should the BOE.
No. 6. Where was Plan B for school lights? The board recently voted to pursue litigation to relax restrictions on field lighting. But where was the short-term plan for the 2017/2018 school year? With 14 months to plan (from September 2016), why didn’t the BOE and school administration focus on securing the use of nearby fields, turfing and lighting Central Middle School, or installing a temporary bubble over the fields before the school year started? It only approached the P&Z on installing temporary lights in October and that approval has still not been given. Student athletes and their parents are understandably upset. (It may be of some consolation that, despite the lack of field lights, a number of GHS fall sports teams enjoyed their best season in many years, including the undefeated GHS varsity football team.)
In conclusion, the BOE and school administration made the right decision to change start times and for the right reason. It should now stand firm and “own” that decision. There should be no consideration given to rolling back start times from 8:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. On this topic, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the CDC, and our own local pediatricians have been perfectly clear. If you try to cheat sleep, you will impair adolescent health.
Yes, there have been implementation problems, so we should solve them. Other districts have. Don’t look back, look forward.
Jim Healy of Riverside is the parent of a middle school student and a high school student in Greenwich public schools.