Sleep on it: Charlottesville considers the science of school start times

Charlottesville school officials are considering shifting school start times to allow middle grades’ schedules to better align with adolescents’ natural sleep cycles. Photo: Elli Williams Charlottesville school officials are considering shifting school start times to allow middle grades’ schedules to better align with adolescents’ natural sleep cycles. Photo: Elli Williams

For years, Charlottesville’s fifth- through eighth-graders have hustled to make a first school bell at 7:40am. But the city schools are now debating how to institute a schedule shift that would push their day later—largely because science shows such an early start time is bad for adolescent brains.

Starting in middle school, kids’ rapidly developing brains and bodies require more and later sleep, said Charlottesville neurologist and sleep expert Dr. Chris Winter.

“We’re not only hurting them in terms of sleep time, we’re hurting them in terms of sleep timing,” he said. Circadian rhythms shift during hormone-charged adolescence, and kids just naturally nod off later, he said.

Pushing forward the beginning of the school day helps solve both problems, said Winter. He pointed to a University of Minnesota study released last month that shows adjusting school schedules to accommodate later, longer sleep cycles can have a significant impact.

Scientists studied 9,000 students at public high schools in three states that had recently adopted start times after 8am. They found car accidents dropped by as much as 70 percent among high schoolers who made the shift, students reported less depression, and schools saw less tardiness and absenteeism and better test scores.

Charlottesville mom Bonnie Burns has watched the shift happen. Over the last year, the early start time has gotten harder for the oldest of her three kids, who will head to Buford Middle School in the fall.

During his first year at Walker last year, her son didn’t struggle much with getting up in time to catch his 7:03am bus. But even with his time asleep staying about the same—between eight and nine hours—this year has been different. “He’s just harder to wake up,” she said.

“You hear people say that some of it is parenting—that if they’re awake at 10 that’s your fault, that’s a failure to put them to sleep,” said Burns. But “the reality is we can put them in their rooms at a certain time and the order in which they fall asleep is by age,” she said. “That’s the part we can’t control.”

School officials came into the debate over start times well-informed on the science; school board documents from last month cite studies from the National Sleep Foundation that also indicate benefits from a later school day. But the board is still trying to figure out how to rejigger the city-wide school schedule.

“With a school system this small, every little thing you do has an impact on everyone else,” said board chair Juandiego Wade. Superintendent Rosa Atkins said in an e-mail that her staff have been working with the board to solicit input from teachers and parents, and worked with a few parameters: Start after 8am, end before 4pm, and ensure there are no budget impacts.

The scenario that’s risen to the top sees elementary schools starting at 8am, upper elementary and middle schools at 8:30am, and the high school at 9:05am; high schoolers would end the day at 3:50pm, 5 minutes later than they do now.*

Ultimately, Atkins said, “the decision is in the hands of the school board.”

*This story initially incorrectly said this proposed scenario would have the high schoolers ending the day 25 minutes later than they do now.

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