BRIDGEWATER, NJ - To continue the conversation regarding the benefits of later school start times, the district held a public forum Oct. 21 at Bridgewater-Raritan High School, but stressed that no decisions have been made yet.
The district has been exploring this subject for several months based on a body of research on the benefits of later school start times and to address health and wellness, one of six core goals of the district’s strategic plan. Superintendent Russell Lazovick said the district has not committed to any final decisions, but will continue to push the conversation forward.
The forum included panelists from outside the district offering their expertise and experience from various perspectives, including pediatrician Dr. Bert Mandelbaum, whose credentials include board of education school physician and chair of New Jersey American Academy of Pediatrics Task Force on Adolescent Sleep and School Start Times. Mandelbaum said that earlier start times were first implemented to solve transportation problems, not for educational benefit.
Mandelbaum explained that during adolescence, the release of Melatonin, a hormone which helps to regulate sleep, is delayed by two to three hours. This biological pattern is specific to adolescence, and naturally reverts back around age 20.
The recommended amount of sleep for teens age 13 to 18, he said, is eight to 10 hours a night.
Sleep deprivation decreases learning retention and physical activity and can increase impulsivity, risk-taking behaviors and symptoms of depression, Mandelbaum said. Mental health is of particular concern, and Mandelbaum added that, according to CDC national data, teen suicide rates have increased by 40 percent from 2015 to 2018, with the highest rate of increase among adolescent girls.
Mandelbaum’s presentation, along with a complete recording of the live-streamed forum will be posted to the school district website, adding to several articles, talks and website links on school start time research that is already available to the public. The collective body of research on later school start times shows benefits including increased school attendance, improved academic achievement and decreased tardiness.
Lazovick and panelists responded to questions that centered around athletics, after-school activities, childcare and transportation.
Panelist Dr. Michael Gorman, former superintendent in Pemberton, said athletics is one of the most manageable aspects of implementing a later high school start time, in his experience. Practice times are adjusted and there are very few occasions where student athletes have to be released from school early because of a game.
Lazovick said a meeting will be convened with district superintendents and athletic directors to discuss sports schedules, since most county districts are connected to the Skylands Conference.
Similar adjustments can be made to before- and after-school activities.
“The single, largest most consistent barrier is transportation,” said Lazovick, adding that the district is not married to any particular solution.
Panelist Gary Snyder, retired principal of Princeton High School, spoke about his district’s process of investigating several different transportation options when transitioning to a later start time.
Lazovick said Bridgewater-Raritan will take a similar approach in exploring all options.
“We are trying to figure out what is most important for our students and figure out what options exist to make that happen by having a conversation that takes into account the barriers and the different needs of our community members,” he said.
A theme that was echoed throughout the discussion is the prioritization of what is best for the health and wellness of students, and ensuring decisions are informed by the research.
Michele Samarya-Timm, health educator with the Somerset County Department of Health, cautioned against relying on caffeine to compensate for lack of sleep, saying the CDC says there is no recommended level of caffeine for children. A soft drink contains 50 mg of caffeine, a five-hour energy drink has 208 mg and a Starbucks Grande coffee has 330 mg, she said.
“Are we making quick fixes on things that we biologically need?” Samarya-Timm asked. “We’re adapting to the bad behaviors instead of trying to find ways to make those behaviors safer, healthier and normative.”
Mandelbaum said research shows that a later start time does ensure students will get more sleep. He said a measurable increase in sleep time was found in a Seattle study using fit bits to monitor sleep times before and after implementing a later school start time.
In response to a question about the obligation of school districts, Gorman said “Very simply, once you are aware of a problem, and I think we are aware of the problem, we have an inherent responsibility to react and do something about it.”
School start times will continue to be a topic of discussion at the next board of education meeting Oct. 29 at 7:30 p.m. at John F. Kennedy Primary School.