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Why COVID-19 convinced some Michigan school districts to start classes later

The pandemic gave high school students in Bloomfield Hills Schools the chance to sleep longer and start school later last year when the district shortened the academic day because of a mix of virtual and in-person learning.

The benefits of an extra 95 minutes of sleep for students — who were used to a 7:25 a.m. start time before the pandemic but started school at 9 a.m. under new hybrid schedules — were abundantly clear, says Superintendent Pat Watson.

"The majority of feedback was from students who said they were less stressed out, they felt they got better sleep and more sleep by being able to sleep later," Watson said. "If there was any way to keep it going, they wanted to do it."

The Oakland County district was able to meet students partway by moving the school start time to 7:55 a.m. this fall. That means dismissal is now at 2:50 p.m. instead of 2:30 p.m. Start times at the district's middle and elementary schools were delayed by 15 minutes and five minutes, respectively, to accommodate bus schedules.

Watson, who took over the top post in January 2020, two months before the pandemic began in Michigan, said COVID-19 ended up being a test run for school districts to see first-hand whether delayed start times provided teens the health and emotional benefits researchers have touted for decades.

"Going through COVID and being able to adjust school start time without the state seat time requirements, we could see the advantage of students getting more sleep," said Watson of the 1,098 hours of instruction required for state aid. 

Several Michigan school districts are making changes to starting times, mostly for older students, now having seen a snapshot of the impact of starting school later in the morning when researchers say their brains benefit from critical REM sleep stages.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics say children ages 6-12 need between nine and 12 hours of sleep a night, while teenagers ages 13-18 need eight to 10 hours of rest.

Clinical research shows a later start time provides a host of benefits to teen students, from increased student achievement to fewer teen vehicle crashes to lower rates of depression. 

Experts say a later start takes into account teens’ natural circadian rhythms. Teens often have a daily inner clock that runs longer than 24 hours, which makes it difficult for them to go to sleep when the rest of the family does.

Dawn Dore-Stites, a pediatric psychologist in the sleep disorder center at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital and Michigan Medicine, said the pandemic reignited the issue of school start times for teens for two reasons: First, families with teens who had later times to log on to their computer saw the benefits directly.

"Secondly, I think that the escalating mental health concerns in teens over the course of the past year has led to concerns that we will soon be returning to cutting their sleep short when we know that sleep can help buffer stress and improve mental health," Dore-Stites said.

Data continues to suggest that the benefits of delaying school start times impact several areas — academic progress, mental health symptoms and public safety, Dore-Stites said.

"There are data suggesting that populations at higher risk of experiencing mental health symptoms in the pandemic have increased positive effects relative to others. In other words, changing school start times may protect our more vulnerable teens the most," Dore-Stites said.

The CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend high schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later to give teens time for sufficient sleep.

Only 17.5% of American high schools start after 8:30 a.m., according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics from 2017-18, the most recent year data is available.

About 10.4% of U.S. high schools start the school day before 7:30 a.m., 32.1% before 8 a.m. and 40% before 8:30 a.m. The average start time for high schools across the U.S. was 8 a.m., according to NCES.

The average start time for Michigan high schools was 7:49 a.m. in the 2017-18 school year.

Officials at Dearborn Public Schools say family logistics like caring for younger siblings and sports schedules were taken into account when changes were made to starting times this fall.

Superintendent Glenn Maleyko said the district has been looking at ways to move high school start times later because research also shows teens learn better later in the day.

Coming off a year of hybrid schedules, the Wayne County district took the opportunity to reset class times: high school is 30 minutes later, while middle school and elementary school classes begin 25 minutes and 20 minutes later, respectively, with start times ranging from 7:50 a.m. to 8:05 a.m.

Maleyko said the district knows many families rely on middle and high school students to care for their younger siblings after school. Busing is always a factor, especially for larger school districts, when making changes to schedules, he said. 

Each of Dearborn's buses typically runs three routes in the morning — one each for elementary, middle and high school students. Start times at the buildings had to be separated enough to complete bus runs for each grade level, he said.

Parent Diana Diab-Midani, who has three children in the district, including a 10th-grader at Fordson High School, said the later start time will let her teen get more and improved sleep.

"It's better for us. In the mornings, it's too early (before). Students can take care and prepare. We have time now to eat breakfast at home," Diab-Midani said. "The new schedule is perfect for me because I can schedule work around the kids."

Novi Community Schools is also making changes. Superintendent Steve Matthews said high schoolers are now starting at 8 a.m. instead of 7:15 a.m. and will be dismissed at 2:45 p.m. instead of 1:59 p.m.

The change prompted the district to adjust its buildings of grades 5-6 to start 30 minutes earlier, and for elementary students to start at 9 a.m. instead of at two staggered times.

"Starting at 7:15 was not positive. The early start time impacted their focus, they were more tired. As the day progresses students lost enthusiasm for learning," Matthews said. "And have more engagement."

The change in school start time did not cost the district money, Matthews said. The district did get some pushback from parents on starting middle school 30 minutes earlier.

"We want to see what impact that has on tardies and attendance. Those kids wake up earlier and are ready for the day like teenagers," Matthews said.

The change in start time at the high school concerns Noland Londo, a senior this fall who plays on the varsity hockey team, but he is more worried about getting out of school later in the day.

"I think it will be nice to sleep in, but it can affect everyone's sports schedules," said Londo, 17. "I would prefer getting off earlier and having more free time than starting later in the morning."

Hockey practice is immediately after school, Londo says, and it's not clear yet how the later dismissal will impact the time slot the school has at the nearby ice arena.

"We might have a gap after school or have to skate later at night," Londo said. "I think high school students are going to see it as an opportunity to stay up later."

Three years ago, Berkley Public Schools moved the start time for high school classes 40 minutes later, from 7:40 a.m. to 8:20 a.m.

The Oakland County district studied the impact from the first year the new start time was in place — the 2018-19 school year —- and found first-hour tardies plummeted 45.5%, suspensions fell 32% and class failure rates dropped 16.3%, school officials said.

Principal Andrew Meloche told the school board in a 2019 report that there were "a lot of positives in the first year" from the time delay and "the few kinks to work out" included scheduling for technical school courses and its consortium Center for Advanced Studies and the Arts school, but not athletics or student employment.

Some school districts are still mulling over changes, including Troy schools, which is considering changes but not until the 2022-23 school year. 

Officials from Rochester Community Schools said the district is now resuming its strategic planning process after COVID-19 delayed it, and school start times may be discussed.

Changing start times is an intricate process that can impact families, working students, and school athletics, clubs and activities, along with school bus runs, district spokeswoman Lori Grein said.

"The district needs to examine whether students who rely on after-school jobs may have to delay work hours or working parents who rely on older students to be home when younger children get off the bus may also have difficulties," Grein said.

The district operates three tiers of bus runs, and delaying start times for high school students could impact middle school and elementary bus runs, school officials said.

Rochester Community Schools parent Kathy Nitz has advocated for a change in start times for more than three years.

Nitz, who has children in elementary, middle and high school, said there are so many reasons to move the start of the school day to later in the morning and virtually no research against doing so.

"It's in the best interest of the children. All the data says so. I've tried to find support for the argument against it. I've never found it," Nitz said. "Bus schedules or parents' work schedules are the only reasons given. It's not the health of the children."

Healthy bedtimes are the responsibility of adolescents and students, Nitz said, and healthy wake times are the responsibility of the school district.

During the pandemic, when her high school child no longer had to wake up for a 7:30 a.m. start time every day and instead could slide out of bed for an 8:30 a.m. class, Nitz saw him transform.

"He was better rested in the morning. He was more engaged. He was more able to focus because when he gets more sleep, he is more cheerful. You notice the difference in the house and his relationship with everyone. The better rested we all are the better we do," she said.

If the district made the change, even just to 8 a.m., it would give kids a chance, she said.

"It may or may not be the case that a child stays up later," Nitz said. "But if school start times are early, there are guarantees no children will have the opportunity to get the sleep they need in the morning."