September 6, 2013

Editorial: Scheduling for sleep


---- — A story in Thursday’s Press-Republican must have brought many in our readership to attention. It said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is advocating — but not mandating — a later start to the school day for older students.

Studies show that teenagers don’t get off to a flying start early in the morning and their performance would be enhanced by a later start in the day.

Meanwhile, younger students should continue on the traditional schedule that schools have used for generations.

Just as researchers learned decades ago that hungry students don’t learn as well, they are finding now that sleepy students are also more lethargic in the classroom. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Students who doze at their desks are less likely to dazzle on tests. And teen sleeping patterns don’t match those of adults.

But changing the starting time of the school day is much easier said than done. More than a few obstacles exist.

For one thing, in rural districts such as most of the North Country, you would have buses running practically non-stop all day. The fleet would have to deliver elementary and middle-school students early, then the buses would need to retrace their routes later in the morning to accommodate the later-rising high-schoolers.

At the standard release time, elementary runs would have to be made, followed later by pickups at the high school.

The pay for the drivers, the wear on the buses and the fuel expended would add up to misery for the district budgeters, who are already squeezed by the state’s mandatory 2 percent cap on tax increases.

The teachers unions would likely have to approve the time switch, which would not be automatic, given the unwieldy days it would create.

And then there are the after-school activities, such as sports, clubs and jobs. If high school got out at, say 5 p.m., sports practices would have to be held either then or, more likely, at night, after supper. Coaches and parents, who do dropoff and pickup, would have to alter their schedules, too. And students who hold jobs would have to start later and work deeper into the night.

When students would normally be concentrating on homework, they could be practicing plays or ringing up customers at a register. That isn’t conducive to good academics, which is, of course, the priority.

We’re not saying some concessions couldn’t be made to get the teenagers more sleep, but starting the school day significantly later doesn’t seem like a good one.

How about scheduling activities first thing in the morning? Get core courses off to a later start, after the students have fully awakened. That’s just one possibility.

Surely, the great minds in education could come up with ways to creatively attack this situation. We encourage the discussion in local schools.