BRIDGEWATER, NJ - A sizable portion of the public voiced its concerns about the possible alteration of school starting times at the Jan. 6 meeting of the Bridgewater-Raritan board of education, with some calling for change and others rallying against it.
Over two dozen individuals during two public sessions of the meeting that was held at Bridgewater-Raritan High School. The consensus of the speakers was in favor of pushing back school start times, especially at the middle and high school levels, to allow students to gain more beneficial sleep, as proven by scientific research.
Several current students spoke out in favor of being allowed to begin school later in the day. Aurora Levitt, a sophomore at the high school, said that the hardest part of going back to class following the recent holiday break was waking up in the morning.
“It's a shock and a struggle,” she said.
She also said she had seen other students fall asleep in class, due to a lack of rest.
“Another year of this won’t help us,” she told the board. “We need action. We need later start times.”
Seventh grader Theo Levitt said this school year marked his first one having to deal with an earlier start time.
“By the end of the day, I’m completely worn out,” he said.
He also said there are frequent conversations among his peers about how bad the start times are, and he agreed with the research regarding later start times.
“It would make a big difference for next year,” he said of a change. “It would make the schools better places.”
Eighth grader Lindsay Bingel spoke of being exhausted, and said she can’t use the weekends to make up for the sleep she misses during the week.
“It’s a paramount problem that needs to be addressed,” she said.
She also said that teenagers have different circadian rhythms than adults, and that they can't simply fall asleep until their bodies have released enough melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle, into their systems, no matter what time they turn in at night. Those effects carry over into the school day, and even into after-school activities.
“It’s difficult to learn when you are exhausted,” said Bingel, who added that lack of sleep could lead to mental illness and such detrimental behavior as drug usage.
She also spoke of how she participates in extracurricular activities, like community theater, soccer and church choir, which she believe are all important to her development, and that she sometimes misses practices or meetings due to exhaustion.
“Later start times would help so many students,” she said.
“We all want what’s best for our children,” added Tiffany Neal, a parent in the district and a public health specialist.
Neal told the board that a policy change is in its power to prevent adolescent sleep loss, and to also lower rates of teenage depression, suicide and vehicular accidents. She said that the Princeton school district, which made a change in its start times to allow its students to get more sleep will “reap the expected benefits.”
Local parent Joseph Kitt, who has three sons in the Bridgewater-Raritan school district, said he supports a change in start times, and that the primary responsibility is to ensure the best educational experience for students.
“It’s the prime motivator,” he said, while noting that some might feel the decision was being rushed. “We are late to the game, and slow to act.”
Bridgewater-Raritan High School graduate Erica Taylor, who works in the medical field, said she has done some research of her own. She said she understands that change is difficult, and that there are also some financial concerns, but she also said that preventative care is much less expensive.
“Teenagers benefit from later start times,” said Taylor, who added that they would induce a ripple effect and increase long-term health benefits. “Sleep debt is a real thing. We need to come from a solutions-based standpoint.”
But not everyone was in agreement that start times should be changed.
Bridgewater-Raritan High School graduate Dennis Wieboldt, whose brother still attends school in the district, presented the board with a petition containing more than 150 signatures he has acquired since last month, to not change school start times. He also spoke of financial and logistical considerations if start times were pushed back, including increased traffic, missed classroom time for athletic competition, later drop-offs from school at night and effects on rush hour traffic.
“It doesn’t mean the issues don’t matter to me,” he said of now attending college out of state. “Bridgewater is my home.”
He then formally implored the board to table its discussion on changing school start times, and to discuss the long-term effects on the community.
Barbara Hopkins, a teacher in the district for 20 years, told the board it has to be prepared to lose qualified teachers if it pushes back starting times. She said teacher schedules won’t change, and that one of her teaching partners from the past 18 years had resigned her position due to family life concerns over later start times.
“You have to be prepared for an exodus of teachers,” said Hopkins
She added that the district might also not be able to fill lost teaching positions, due to the later dismissal times, or find quality replacement educators.
Local parent Jennifer Winchock, who has four children in the district including two in high school, said she strongly opposes changing the start times. She said parents needed to actually parent their children with regard to letting them stay up late, and that her own children have to be off their phones by 10 p.m.
“That’s my job,” she said.
She also said that most extracurricular activities would be pushed back if schools started later, with district soccer and lacrosse teams already sharing field times with Bridgewater recreational clubs. She added that if start times were pushed back, students wouldn’t be getting home until night, including band members who are practicing late, thus negating extra sleep.
Winchock added that some middle school and high school teachers need to work second jobs to support their families, and she also wondered who would pay for necessities such as lights that would be needed on baseball fields if games started later.
“Our facilities are not top-notch,” said Winchock, who also said it is not the board’s job to parent students, or to act as a daycare.
Janelle Kirk, who has three children in local schools, said she supports later stating times for both the middle and high schools.
“I’m grateful you have taken the time (to provide us) with a wealth of research available to the community,” she told the board, including bringing in medical experts to speak to the public, while also analyzing transportation options and other costs.
“I hope you will act in the best interests of adolescents and their health,” said Kirk, who added that, according to research, later start times result in better student grades and test scores.
Lynn Taylor, a local parent who has served 25 years as a social worker, related her own observations of students, and the effects of sleep deprivation.
“I see every day how much they’re suffering,” she said.
She also said that change is not easy, but that there is science behind the proposed change, and that children are also on more medications today than ever. She said the board could wait and make sure everything is in order before making a change, but that students would continue to suffer in the interim.
“We need to take a step back,” she said. “First and foremost is our children’s health.”
Local parent Greg Pasquale, whose wife is an educator, said he is pleased the board is considering changing school start times, and said that science supports such a change.
“Don’t let inertia keep you (from deciding),” he told the board.
Raritan resident Maureen Tusini said there are a lot of trade-offs in the matter, but that student health is paramount.
“Later start times are not a radical idea,” she said, and added the district has to act now.
Local parent Jessica Levitt, who has largely spearheaded the push for later school starting times for almost a year now, was even more direct.
“The middle school and the high school start too early,” said Levitt, adding that she had helped write a board survey on the start times matter.
She added that chronic fatigue leads to health problems and other issues, and that she has had no agenda of her own in donating many hours of her own time to help.
“It seems clear you have done it the right way,” she told the board of its process. “At some point you have to move forward and make it happen. Next year matters.”
High school sophomore Melanie Thoms spoke of how a classmate of hers suffered burns during a first-period cooking class, with sleep-deprived students handling ovens, knives and the like early in the morning.
“It felt really dangerous,” she said.
She also said she has to walk to her bus stop in pitch blackness in the mornings, and also has to walk on the grass along a largely unsafe road at that time. Her mother, Amelia Thoms, said she is also concerned about her daughter walking to the bus stop around 6:30 a.m., and that she also forbids her children from using electronics after 9 p.m., to get ready for bed.
Resident Carrie Brookner expressed concerns over transportation, specifically Option 5 as was presented to the board last month, and said that elementary school students shouldn’t have to get up at 6:30 a.m. to get ready to catch their bus to school. She said that Option 3 would have those students start school at 9:30 a.m., which she added us similar to preschool, and that parents will still have to deal with getting morning and afternoon childcare.
“I know it’s a big change,” said Brookner, “but I don’t think that's a reason to delay.”
No decision has been made yet, and the board is continuing the discussion.
To read the board comments from the Jan. 6 meeting, click here.