North Salem Central School District (NSCSD) considers a later start time for students

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At the June 1st North Salem Central School District Board of Education (BOE) meeting, Board trustees began to consider a proposal by the district’s School Start Time committee that would delay the start of the school day for students in the district by 30 minutes.

Several leading national health groups, including the American Medical Association, the Centers for Disease Control, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine have issued policy statements advocating for start times of 8:30 a.m. or later for middle and high school students. These groups cite the health risks of insufficient sleep as the reason for their advocacy. However, committee moderator and consultant, Jonathan Costa remarked in his presentation that while short of the 8:30 a.m. recommendation, “It’s a good start at buying a half hour, which is better than nothing.”

In the presentation, Costa reported the work done by the School Start Time Committee since its formation in 2021. The School Start Time Committee is composed of multiple stakeholder groups including parents, administrators and teachers. He shared the committee's proposal, which, beginning with the 2023-2024 school year, would have MSHS students starting at 7:58 a.m. and Pequenakonck Elementary students starting at 8:55 a.m. The proposal includes the suggestion of a one-year time period to solicit community feedback in the 2022-2023 school year and then have the late start time go into effect in the 2023 school year. Costa explained that it is imperative to get the community involved, remarking that each family will experience this shift differently and it is crucial to understand everyone’s position. How the school district intends to solicit this feedback is undetermined at this time.

The science behind later start times

Costa opened his presentation in strong defense of a later school start time, saying, “the science is clear” and that sleep disruption to adolescents is harmful. That science draws on connections between poor sleep hygiene and the effect it has on other areas such as an increase in motor vehicle accidents, an increase in sports injuries, decreased mental health, and decreased academic performance. Insufficient sleep in teenagers is associated with increased risk of self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts, according to data from the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. Costa linked early school start times with adolescent sleep disruption, saying these “out of sync” school schedules do not reflect the needs and patterns of adolescents, who, due to shifting biological rhythms, become tired later at night and need to sleep later in the morning.

Costa explained that despite the science being clear, districts need to balance the need for start time with how well the community can cope with the disruption of that kind of change. The committee considered seven proposals, which included everything from keeping start times as is to starting the middle school/high school at 8:30 a.m. and PQ at 7:40 a.m.

Ultimately, the committee threw their weight behind the proposal that shifts start time back by 30 minutes for both schools. A flipped schedule, in which PQ starts at 7:25 a.m. and the MSHS starts at 8:15 a.m. was due to safety concerns of having young children "waiting for buses in the dark during winter."

The committee outlined 5 benefits for shifting start times back by 30 minutes at both schools. These benefits suggest a late start time will improve learning conditions, improve the quality of the students’ lives, improve achievement in classes, minimize disruption to the community structures, and minimize the financial impact on transportation.

Costa noted that multiple school districts in our area have made this shift, including neighboring Katonah-Lewisboro, Dobbs Ferry, Greenburgh as well as Connecticut schools including Newtown, Greenwich, and Wilton. Currently, the 7:28 a.m. start time at the MSHS at NSCSD is an outlier when compared to other districts. If the district shifts to a start time of 7:58 a.m. for the MSHS, North Salem Central School District would be right in the middle for start time averages.

Whose needs are being met with the proposed late start time?

The committee’s next steps include movement to mitigate the effects of a later school start time on the community. Some of these effects include the impact a late school start time will have on childcare, extracurricular activities, and various transportation issues including an increase in the transportation costs, bus schedules, and out-of-district busing. 

Elizabeth Malvino, committee member and member of the Westchester chapter of Start School Later, a national nonprofit dedicated to healthy and safe school hours, told the North Salem Post that the shift in start time should never “sacrifice the interests of one student group to benefit another.” Malvino said that input from both schools is essential and expressed concerns about the risk remaining status quo, citing damage to “the mental and physical health of the MSHS students” with a 7:28 a.m. start time. Malvino emphasized that science and solid data, not opinion or resistance to change, should be the starting point of the conversation.

Despite extensive evidence that sleep hygiene is essential for teenagers, there was and will be criticism about any proposal that changes the district’s current start times. Multiple comments made during the presentation reveal just how polarizing this issue can be within communities. Not even all of the Start Time committee members themselves are in support of a shift. Malvino continued, saying that despite the district’s inability to start at the recommended 8:30 a.m., the work reflects “the committee's ability to process the research and move in the right direction.” Malvino is hopeful that the Board of Education and the community will be able to come together on this.

Trustee Brian Lange was one of the few Board members who looked at the situation and queried how delaying the start time at both schools could potentially prioritize the needs of MSHS students over those of PQ students. In closing comment, School Start Time committee member and parent of PQ children Lisa DeRose remarked on the hardships later start time would bring to families of young children, many of whom have children who wake early in the day. DeRose said that this may impact young children and working parents who may have to drop off their children for childcare two hours before school opens. DeRose also cited a robust after school program at PQ that would not start until 3:45 p.m. if the school start time moved later for PQ students, DeRose felt strongly that it could be difficult for some younger children at that time of the day.

DeRose’s position, as a working family with young children, explores how a later start time for elementary students could potentially be harmful to young learners who have different physiological needs that may not be suitable to a day that now ends at 3:45 p.m.

Teacher’s union representative, Jim Savarese, remarked the NSTA has had a presence on the Committee and will work with whatever the Board of Education decides. Savarese continued saying, “Our Contract specifies a seven hour workday, with other stipulations, but doesn't identify specific start and end times to the school day.” At the time of writing this article neither Dr. Freeston, superintendent of schools, nor administrators at PQ had responded to questions for further commentary.

You can listen to the entirety of the presentation on NSCSD’s website and take a closer look at the committee’s report.

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