Later school times for Appo District students? Panel hears from expert on sleep patterns

Middletown High School students deboard school buses in the morning for school. Appoquinimink School District has assembled a taskforce to determine if the district could roll out later start times for its high school population. Delaware State News/Brooke Schultz

MIDDLETOWN — As she addressed a group of parents in Middletown High School, Dr. Indira Gurubhagavatula invoked the feelings of jetlag: vertigo, nausea, heaviness of the head.

“That’s the misalignment,” she said. “That’s what our kids feel like every day.”

That is due to sleep deprivation, Dr. Gurubhagavatula said.

An associate professor of clinical medicine in the division of sleep medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gurubhagavatula walked parents, Appoquinimink School District staff and community members through a presentation about adolescent sleep needs last week.

Her presentation was the beginning of the district assembling a task force to look at sleep and school start times. The work of the task force, composed of 40 members ranging from students to staff to community members, will culminate with a final report and recommendation to the district’s school board. Their first meeting was in February.

“There have been many school districts that have explored this,” said Tom Poehlmann, the district’s director of safety, security and operations who is spearheading the taskforce. “In the state of California, it’s state law that high schools can’t start until 8:30 [a.m.] The legislature has pretty much said, ‘Now, districts, figure it out.’ Where our neighbors in Pennsylvania, district by district, they’re trying to figure it out as a community.”

Throughout the country, districts have moved to a later-start-time model, but, as of yet, it hasn’t been attempted in Delaware.

“There’s at least talk,” Mr. Poehlmann said. “I mean, honestly, anybody that is a superintendent in the field of education is familiar with the studies that have been around since 2014. I was a principal and assistant principal, a teacher and before I took on this task, I did my homework. You almost can’t argue with the science. It’s just a matter of can you overcome the obstacles?”

Downstate, in Capital School District, Superintendent Dan Shelton said that the district hasn’t officially considered later start times. In fact, it would be against the contract the district has with its educators.

“The teachers’ contract has start times written into it,” he said. “Our school board couldn’t do it without renegotiating the teachers’ contracts.”

In Milford, Superintendent Kevin Dickerson said that the topic has arisen before, but not for the past few years.

Caesar Rodney School District Superintendent Kevin Fitzgerald said the district’s start times are impacted by availability of bus transportation.

“Before we can educate our students, we have to get them to school and then home again. Without a sufficient number of bus drivers, our bus contractors were unable to do that,” he said.

In Caesar Rodney, he said that means the buses do “double runs,” which impacts start and end times for school.

In Appoquinimink, students are dropped off at district high schools around 7:10 a.m.

With a committee of parents, teachers, community members and administrators, he said his district determined to start secondary schools at 7:30 a.m., and elementary schools at 8:30 a.m.

“While starting school this early is not ideal, it does allow older siblings to be home for their younger siblings and it cuts down on the loss of instructional time due to extracurricular activities,” he said.

Mr. Poehlmann said he visited Radnor, Pennsylvania, which established a coalition, to learn their process.

As a first step, Dr. Gurubhagavatula spoke to the community to present the science.

Adolescents require eight to 10 hours of sleep each night, she said in her presentation. Students are only getting about a quarter of that.

Numerous groups that study sleep, such as the Centers for Disease Control, recommend a start time of 8:30 a.m. or later for school to start for adolescents, Dr. Gurubhagavatula said.

She explained that teenagers’ biological rhythm is misaligned, where they don’t become tired until at least 11:30 p.m. — that’s without cell phones or social commitments like sports, dates, work and even homework.

“In that stage of life, once puberty hits, which is usually age 11 for girls, and around age 13 for boys, around that time, there’s this biological preference, where even if you go to bed at 8:30 or 9, it’s very hard to fall asleep,” she said.

As you sleep, your body releases melatonin. For adults and children, that’s happening in the early morning hours, she said. Teens are at their “sleepiest hours” at 7 a.m., when they’re on the bus or sitting in first period, she continued. It also cuts into REM — rapid eye movement — sleep, which is important for “memory, concentration, emotional regulation.”

In Appoquinimink, students are dropped off at the district’s high schools around 7:10 a.m. In Capital’s Dover High School, that’s around 7:15 a.m. First period in Caesar Rodney High School begins at 7:30 a.m., followed by Milford High School at 7:35 a.m. Other districts downstate follow similar time frames.

Citing a variety of studies, Dr. Gurubhagavatula said students are experiencing sleep deprivation, which primarily affects the frontal lobe. This can increase aggression and impulsivity and negatively impact executive functions such as selective attention, decision making, judgement, memory and problem solving. It also can mean exaggerated emotional responses.

Physical health also takes a hit; lack of sleep affects weight gain, causes metabolic dysfunction, cardiovascular disease and more.
Plus, teenagers are drowsy, she said.

“Among the top three killers among teens are car crashes and suicide,” she said. “And both can be impacted by sleep deprivation.”

The task force Mr. Poehlmann spearheads will look at the research, taking into consideration the bus driver shortage, the financial commitment and other school functions, such as clubs, sports, teens’ work schedules and more. Some of that might take thinking outside the box, he added.

“We need to do what’s best for kids, and sometimes we get lost in the obstacles and the other things, but that’s sort of the guiding principle here,” Mr. Poehlmann said.

The work will likely take 18 to 24 months, he said, to see if an 8:30 a.m. start time is viable for the district. Deciding on a time later than their current start time could come before that, or be easier to achieve, though the task force isn’t that far along in its work, Mr. Poehlmann said.

“My hope is that the dominoes would start the fall. If that’s not the case, I think it could be difficult aligning schedules when we compete against other school districts, but one of the things I’ve said to our task force is: we need to think outside of the box,” Mr. Poehlmann said.

“I just think if we get stuck in knowing what has been done, we’ll hit more roadblocks than if we start thinking outside the box. That’s the way innovation and change happens, by testing the limits and trying to do things people think are impossible.”

At last week’s presentation, the response was mixed. While some parents advocated for making the change faster, others expressed concern.

Appoquinimink Board of Education President Richard Forsten urged parents to speak out about the start times.

“There are some real logistical issues that have to be worked through,” he said. “You all care, so make your voices heard, to the taskforce, to the school board, to the administrators. There is going to be change. That will happen.”