Group Chat

What Time Should Seattle School Days Start?

Three clock-minders weigh sleep science, equity, and a bus driver shortage after Seattle Public Schools shelves a bell change proposal.

By Benjamin Cassidy August 30, 2022 Published in the Fall 2022 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Jane Sherman

► Dr. Maida Chen, director, Pediatric Sleep Disorders Center at Seattle Children’s
► Manuela Slye, co-vice president, Seattle Council PTSA
► Chetan Soni, junior, Lincoln High School

What is the ideal time to start school each day?

► MC: I think from a scientific and a medical standpoint, the decisions that were implemented in 2017, to push high schools back and elementary schools earlier, were based on a fair amount of robust science—more than one study and actually fairly big policies put out by the American Academy of Pediatrics and Sleep Medicine and the CDC that all recommended secondary school start after 8:30.

But what is a little less clear: There is a paucity of data on the little kids [pre-pubertal] in terms of, okay, what time is ideal for them? And there’s actually only a few districts that have been able to gather any data for that. We realized it was a balance of family function and just logistics that oftentimes prevailed with the little kids, that little kids’ circadian rhythm was much more aligned with getting to school early or starting learning earlier. It just didn’t work so well with families.

So, to answer your question about ideal start time, I really do think between 8:30 and 9 is kind of that sweet spot for just about all the age groups, for a variety of different reasons. But logistically, there would have to be a lot of things that would need to change for SPS in order for everybody to start at 8:30 or 9.

► MS: As a parent of four, if I could have it my way with a magic wand, I would say 8:30 for everyone. I’m also an early childhood educator, and between 8:30 and 9 seems to be a time that works well for students going to preschool. As a working parent and knowing my children and how difficult many times it is to get out the door, 8:30 sounds like a good thing for me.

► MC: I should add: I have three kids in Seattle Public Schools as well. And there was one year where elementary school got pushed as early as 7:45, and even me—incredibly privileged with lots of resources—it was hard getting out the door. So, yeah, I’m with you.

► MS: Yeah, at some point, I had kids that started as late as 9:20am. But for many it created a lot of challenges for working parents. For my kids, it was ideal, because it was later in the day. But again, ideally, for me, as an educator, parent, and advocate, 8:30 is my number.

► CS: Yeah, I’d have to agree, somewhere in that time frame of 8:30 to 9. For elementary and middle schoolers, 8, 8:30—maybe 8 for elementary school, 8:30 for middle school, and then 9 for high schoolers. Just because I’ve seen, being in first period, with a lot of people in my classes, they’re not really—they’re kind of out of it still. So you kind of lose that learning functionality. And I’ve noticed as you move along the day to second and third period, people are more engaged in discussion, they’re a lot more engaged in the classroom, and they get a lot more work done. So delaying that start time to around nine o’clock, helps make sure that these students that, you know, sometimes have brain fog, come in and are ready to learn.

And Dr. Chen, can you speak a little bit more about how a lack of sleep specifically affects students? What are some of the negative effects that you’ve observed?

I think some of the earliest effects of inadequate sleep or suboptimal sleep are actually ones that nobody attributes to sleep. So a lot of it is mood, behavior. Things like meltdowns, things like hangriness, things like how you interact with peers, and how you interact with parents. And I think most parents will tell you that their kids oftentimes are able to hold it together for the day, and then that fatigue—brain fatigue, physical fatigue, and then not having enough sleep—catches up with them in that family life, and family relations become really difficult if they’re savin’ it all for mom at the end of the day, type of thing. So a lot of those things that we blame on perhaps just being a kid, sure, there's part of that. But I think a lot of it is actually suboptimal sleep.

Then, as you go along that spectrum, then you start having some pretty significant cognitive [effects]: academic performance, ability to learn, ability to retain, ability to remember and recall. Executive function becomes very impaired. For teenagers in particular, their judgment goes out the window. That’s not anything that a teenager is aware of themselves, because their frontal lobes are just not completely formed yet, but they already struggle with making good decisions. And if you put sleep deprivation in there with that, their decision-making process—again, executive function, good judgment—really is quite impaired.

And there’s a whole host of physical things that happen when you don’t get enough sleep, including directly leading to things like obesity, risk of diabetes long-term. Growth is actually impaired for some teenagers who are earlier in their pubertal phases. Growth, physical growth, can actually be impaired if you don’t get enough sleep. So lots of things.

Manuela, what have you seen and heard from parents and teachers over the past few years since school start times have been pushed back? Have there been any drawbacks to doing this?

MS: It always comes down to where families are in their needs. With working parents, it’s definitely very challenging to have a much later time. Like I said, at some point, my kids started at 9:20. It was very difficult for many families. And also, what I notice is that it also has a lot to do with socioeconomics for parents. I want to acknowledge: It’s hard for everyone. But the most impacted are those that don’t really have another choice but to be the ones bringing their kids to school. Sometimes just paying for before or after school is prohibitive for many families.

So that’s what I hear. I’m in community with people in West Seattle, in South Park, and I hear their concerns and a lot of the way that they felt left out of the conversation, and maybe we can talk about that later. But that’s what I'm hearing. And it all depends on whether parents are working, if they’re working from home. That seems to be not as common for the lower-income families that have a nine to five job that they have to go to. That’s what I hear the most—the most pressing issue has to do with socioeconomics.

Can you talk a little bit more about that now, about how folks have been left out of the conversation, what you've seen?

Well, many times language is a barrier. Engagement with communities that don’t speak English or don’t have the access to technology is always very difficult. They end up getting the information in a delayed way, when things have already passed, or decisions have been already made.

I’ll give you an example. In South Park, we have Concord [International] Elementary, and most of the kids from Concord, because of the proximity, and also because of the dual language immersion, they go to Denny [International Middle School]. And then Denny has a shared campus with Chief Sealth [International High School]. So when the information was presented, the idea was to have Concord in the first tier [of school start times], Denny in the second tier, and Chief Sealth in the third tier. And that was absolutely chaotic and very concerning for many families that have kids in one, two, or three of the schools.

So the way that the district was listening to families…they decided to switch Denny to tier one, so at least it was only two tiers in that cluster of schools. We have to consider that Denny, most of the schools that feed into Denny are Title I schools. So I think it’s very important to shed light on the fact that any changes that we have in the system will always impact the most disadvantaged communities first.

Chetan, what are all the different times you’ve started school?

► CS: In elementary school, I went to a private school. I started at seven o’clock in the morning. In middle school, I started at 7:25 in the morning. And now in high school, it’s 8:45. So it’s definitely a difference. Of course last year, with it being online, my school started at 9. And yeah, there’s definitely been a big difference.

I think that it has to do with the dynamics of each school that I went to, but also just the general feel of—kind of what Manuela, what you were saying—how it affects the most disenfranchised people.

Talking to classmates, friends, etc., what’s your general sense of what people think about starting a bit later?

► CS: I think from the students’ perspective, especially with high school classmates that I’ve talked to, most people want to start later. And that’s for one of two reasons. One, at my school at least, the bus does not come—it either comes a lot earlier or right there, so you’re kind of late coming in. So maybe it’s the transportation issue there. But it’s also people are like, yeah, I want to sleep in. Because a lot of people do their AP coursework the night before, or sometimes the morning of. I want to have more of an opportunity to do that as well.

California is going to institute this law that basically every high school in the state has to start at at least 8:30, per the American Academy of Pediatrics. [And middle schools can start no earlier than 8.] Should Washington do the same thing?

► MC: If you ask me, I think we all should. And there is pending legislation that's similar in New Jersey and New York. The reason being is that, there will always be pushback. Again, change is hard. When some of these big things are put into place, remember that this is for the greater public good. This is for greater public health. We’ve made rules saying you can’t smoke in public places. You have to use a seatbelt. This is kind of similar.

The public health implications of having a completely sleep-deprived generation and how that rolls out long-term [are significant]. Like, if you get into a lot of fights with your mom now, what does that translate into in 10 years? In 20 years? If you get into a car crash now and you kill somebody, you know, that’s irreplaceable.

I think keeping in mind that these guidelines were put in place by public health agencies, for public health, is something that we are not taking seriously. This is not a matter of convenience, or for just making sure that the sports teams can get to all their games on time. The reason that is happening is because other districts haven’t followed suit [with later start times]. And if you talk to the other districts, they haven’t followed suit because the parent pushback has been too great. Having stuff that is in place, really, for the greater good, guided by our governmental leaders, is something that I think would help us.

► MS: I have a lot of thoughts in mind. I hope that I can articulate them, because we are looking at a national shortage of drivers. We cannot deny that. And being in Seattle Public Schools, which is the largest school district in our state, makes it very, very complicated. And there’s very few, from my understanding, very few school districts that are two-tier. The average have a three-tier system, which, as we have been discussing, is very difficult on families, is very difficult on sleep.

Ideally, we can make decisions based on the well-being of students. That’s what we need to do. That’s where the advocacy needs to fall. From my perspective, I've worked for so many years as an advocate in public education, including at the legislative level, and the way we have it right now is not sustainable because we don’t have the resources. There’s a shortage. And also, our city...has changed exponentially in traffic patterns. So if we have a two-tier system, we need more money, we need more buses, we need more drivers. And where does that come from? From above. It’s not us in this discussion. It’s not Seattle Public Schools. It’s a much bigger issue.

So I invite everyone to think how we can come together and make this the best we can for our students, not base it on pointing just doesn’t help anyone…. We need to continue to advocate for funding from the legislators and say, Hey, we have this issue, and we cannot fix it with the resources we have. Because as many of you might know, the budget that we get for reimbursement for transportation doesn’t match what we really need for transportation. So that’s where many of these discussions should be focused on. But for the purpose of this space, I do want to close by saying any decision that is made based on student outcomes and well-being will make our families the most satisfied. I don’t have the answer. But I think that should be our goal.

► CS: I definitely want to echo everything that was said. I think every school in Washington state needs to start at or after 8:30. And I also think that any decision made by school districts needs to be run through students and parents and community members as to how it’s going to affect them and how it’s going to affect everyone there in the district. Districts across the state need to keep that in mind when making these decisions. I’m really glad that SPS listened to parents, students, and community members about the delaying of school start times.

In addition to better public transit for students, as well as better yellow bus service for students, I think emphasizing working with King County Metro to really, really emphasize putting more bus stops, putting more bus frequency on high school and middle school routes, [would help]. Because what I’ve seen a lot is, with these school start times, you have these regular public Metro buses coming in, with people already on it, on top of the hundreds of students trying to get to and from school. So that creates a lot of backlog. We just need to keep that in mind.

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