Members of the Bedford School Committee on Tuesday listened to the unanimous Board of Health recommendation for a later start to the day in middle and high school, and agreed to seek reaction from the town.
“We need to engage in a broad conversation with the community and put together a process to figure out how we’re going to do this,” said Chair Brad Morrison. “The question is one that has to do with implementing what will meet the needs of various interests in Bedford.” He said the issue will be added to an upcoming agenda, “pretty soon I hope.”
The Board of Health’s recommendation is for a start time no earlier than 8:30 a.m. Currently, the middle school day begins at 7:40 a.m. and the high school start time is 7:45 a.m.
Those times are deleterious to the students’ welfare and compromise learning, according to the Board of Health.
Board of Health members Ann Kiessling, Maureen Richichi, and chair Susan Schwartz attended Tuesday’s meeting at BHS. Richichi, a retired school nurse, was the presenter.
Insufficient sleep among adolescents is a national public health issue, and “evidence implicates earlier school start time as a key contributor to insufficient sleep,” she said. “Professional, medical, and public health organizations unanimously recommend starting times of no earlier than 8:30 a.m.”
“I’m looking forward to a conversation with the community to get everybody on board,” said School Committee member Sarah Scoville. Her colleague Dan Brosgol said, “I am committed to the process and a strong conversation.”
Brosgol brought up the likely outcome of earlier start times for the town’s two elementary schools and the allocation of buses. Richichi said the Board of Health did not consider “logistics – that’s your role.” Other districts have successfully made the change, she added.
“I hope we move in this direction,” said Sheila Mehta-Green. Ann Guay said, “You’ve done a lot of our homework for us and it’s incredibly informative to see how other districts do this.”
Richichi’s presentation included scientific explanations for adolescents’ sleep requirements. She displayed a chart illustrating “a delayed circadian phase” that “leads them to fall asleep and wake up later than younger children.”
Adolescents are more alert until late into the evening, she said. For some teens, “waking up at 7 a.m. means their bloodstream is still flushed with melatonin.”
She also traced the 30-year national history of efforts to delay start times. “In 2014, a crowning body of evidence about the benefits of later start times led to a policy statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics,” she reported. “Insufficient sleep in adolescents is considered a serious health issue” that can compromise academic success as well as safety.
This isn’t the first time the School Committee has been asked to consider delaying the start time, and one concern has been the impact on after-school sports. Richichi pointed out that only four Dual County League towns now start school before 8 a.m. – and four don’t start the day until 8:30 a.m.
Mehta-Green said she has experienced waiting with her children for opposing teams to arrive in Bedford for afternoon matches. “We find ourselves wasting a lot of time waiting.”
Scoville also noted that ice and water sports often practice in the evening. “The older the kid is the later the practice times.”
Richichi acknowledged that another issue has been timing for child care arrangements. She stated, “Other districts have met the challenges and really put the needs of their students first.”
She cited research stating that adolescents, ages 13-18, should sleep 8 to 10 hours a night, then noted recent local youth risk behavior surveys. In 2015, more than 40 percent of teenagers reported getting six or fewer hours of sleep on school nights. The percentage was unchanged four years later. An Emerson Hospital regional survey in 2020 reported 35 percent of middle and high school students sleeping no more than six hours, and 82 percent of high school students no more than seven.
Sleep is essential to consolidate learning, especially in the REM stage, Richichi said, quoting scientific studies. “A sleep-deprived brain is slower to react and makes more mistakes,” she stated. “We are taking away one important REM cycle a night with the early start.”
Kids who sleep late on weekends to catch up “can worsen circadian disruption,” she said the evidence shows. “The adverse effects of chronic insufficient sleep” include impaired cognition, issues with physical and emotional health, and “falling asleep in class.”
Later start times result in “strong evidence of improvements in school performance, decrease in discipline issues, and increased sleep.” And the students don’t go to bed later than before, she added.
Richichi noted that there are two proposed bills in the Legislature addressing school start times. Both are in House committees.