My two cents on the proposed changes to Amherst school start times

To: Maria Geryk, Superintendent; School Committee

I’m not sure I’ll be able to get to any of the public meetings about the proposals to change the start times of the Amherst Regional Public Schools, so I’m sending my thoughts in writing.  I have two children in ARPS, one in eighth grade at ARMS and one in fourth grade at Wildwood.

I admit that at this time of year, I sometimes call the school-closing hotline at 6 AM even if it hasn’t snowed, fantasizing that black ice or a freak snowstorm somewhere in the region will have produced a one- or two-hour delay so that we can all go back to sleep until the sun is up.  However, the fun of weather delays is that they provide extra sleep, because we went to bed as if we had to get up at 6.  Routinely starting the school day later will, most likely, affect when but not how much the secondary students sleep, and does not seem worth the logistical challenges and potential child-care costs for working families.

I completely agree that adolescents would be better off getting 9 hours of sleep per night.  (So would their middle-aged parents.)  However, I’m not convinced that a one-hour delay in the secondary start time would make enough of a difference to be worth the financial and other costs it would entail.  According to a survey reported recently in the Gazette, students at ARHS go to bed between 10:30 PM and 12:30 AM.  Thus, with the current start times, very few of them are even getting 8 hours of sleep, never mind 9.  If we assume that the range of typical student bedtimes would stay about the same with a one-hour later start, the people going to bed at 10:30 will indeed have a shot at getting their 9 hours in.  Everybody else will just have the chance to be about an hour less sleep-deprived.

If the only way of starting the secondary schools at 8:45 is to flip so that the elementary schools are starting earlier, then my worry is that the school district will be making secondary parents’ and students’ lives a little bit easier (so long as everybody keeps going to bed when they did for the earlier start) at a potentially large cost to families with children in elementary school and no parents who can stay home or work flexible hours.  Having to pay for an additional hour of child care could be a significant financial burden to parents of children who are already in some form of after-school care.  Parents who can currently manage to leave work in time to retrieve children at 3:05 (1:20 on Wednesdays) may have a more difficult time if the dismissal times are 2:05 and 12:20.  Even families whose children are in before-school care now, who might not need an extra hour of care if the school day shifted an hour earlier, may still face some non-financial disruption in figuring out new arrangements.

My fear is that it doesn’t seem like anybody has a good sense of how great these additional costs might turn out to be.  Without some solid information about costs, it’s impossible to  know whether or not the benefit of the relatively small marginal improvement in sleep for secondary students outweighs them.  If the district goes with the option that produces a half-hour later start for elementary and secondary students, I’m not sure that most families will even notice a difference in how rested their adolescents are, but there will still be a logistical and financial cost to get there.

The elementary and regional schools are currently working hard to address several large and important problems, such as raising overall levels of student achievement, closing achievement gaps, and making sure that the schools are meeting students’ needs.  Nick Yaffe at Wildwood has done a fabulous job of building community following the shift of all the Mark’s Meadow students to Wildwood and the related redistricting of everybody else.  I deeply admire Mike Hayes’s honesty about the challenges facing ARMS and the work he’s doing to meet them.  Given that there’s so much else going on, I don’t see the point in piling on a new set of logistical challenges.

I agree that we should be worried about the consequences of sleep deprivation for students in the Amherst secondary schools, but the early start time is only a relatively small part of the problem.  (My daughter’s theory is that if school started an hour later, everybody would just put off their homework for an hour and end up getting about the same amount of sleep.)  With a later start time, the students who are loaded up with honors courses and activities will stay that way.  The students who are working afternoon and evening jobs will still try to fit in the same number of hours.  The students who stay up too late watching TV, texting their friends, and posting to Facebook will keep doing that.

Let’s digest what’s already on our plates before we add any new projects whose benefits may not turn out to be worth their costs.

Thank you for your consideration.

Katie McDermott

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