DREXEL HILL, Pa. (AP) — In the hours before he is due to attend Upper Darby High School, senior Khalid Doulat has time to pray, help his mother or prepare for job training.
It’s a welcome shift from last year for him and thousands of students at the school, which has shifted the start time by more than two hours – from a 7:30am start time to 9:45am. strains on students that were more visible than ever as they emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’ll be honest, I’ve been much happier in the morning,” Doulat said. “I’ve been more positive, and I’ve come to school more smiling than, you know, reluctantly getting out of bed and stuff like that at 7:30.”
The idea of later school start times, promoted by many over the years as a way to help adolescents get more sleep, is taking on a new look as a way to address the mental health crisis affecting teens in the US
For some schools, the pandemic made it possible to experiment with trying out new schedules. For example, in 2019 Upper Darby initially considered later start times. Finally this year it found a way to do this by using distance learning as part of the school day.
When students first returned to face-to-face learning, many were dealing with mental health and behavioral problems, Upper Darby Superintendent Daniel McGarry said. Officials saw a slump in students who respected the authority of teachers in the classroom.
“We had a lot of those things that we faced and we’re still working through them; we’re in a much better place,” McGarry said. “I think our kids feel better. They are not 100% better.” But, he said, much of the social anxiety students felt after attending the online school is gone.
During the pandemic, huge numbers of high school students expressed lingering feelings of sadness or hopelessness, with girls and LGBTQ+ youth reporting the highest levels of mental ill health and suicide attempts. It doesn’t help that research shows middle and high school students don’t get enough sleep.
“These mental health challenges are already going to happen and then, with the lack of sleep, they’re much worse,” says Orfeu Buxton, director of the Sleep, Health & Society Collaboratory at Penn State University. “Same with decision-making, suicidal thoughts, things like that.”
The reasons why high schools start as early as they do — many start their day before 7:30 a.m. — are “lost in the sands of history,” Buxton said. But now, he said, “everything is baked into that: traffic light patterns, bus schedules and adult work.”
According to the National Conference on State Legislatures, at least nine states are considering legislation at the national level regarding school start times, up from four last year. California became the first and only state to dictate school start times in 2019.
Major school systems, including Denver, Philadelphia and Anchorage, Alaska, have looked at later start times.
It may take innovation to forge a new scheme.
At Upper Darby High, the school day still technically starts at 7:30 a.m. with students being assigned courses to be taken remotely and aligning with their classes for the day. But they can use the early morning hours as they see fit: they can meet teachers during office hours, sleep in, or finish other homework. In the end, the work has to be done before early morning, but when is up to the students.
“I think more sleep definitely helps,” says Elise Olmstead, a junior. “I would be more irritable throughout the day, especially later on, because I have a lot of after-school stuff. I would just have a harder time getting through the day.
The school day still ends at 3:00 PM
Fatima Afrani, a college freshman, said that when she comes home she will usually relax, then help her mother or do her homework.
“When I’m tired, I go to sleep, something I couldn’t do last year. Last year I just had to finish my homework because there was no option to do it later,” she said. “And so I liked that when I was tired I could listen to my body and just let myself sleep.”
Principal Matthew Alloway said teachers have noticed fewer students sleeping in class. The new schedule has also allowed “kids to go to school for exactly what they need,” he said. About 400 of the school’s 4,250 students take only virtual learning – an option that was offered to compete with online schools.
Critics have argued that students in the new schedule have less instruction time. The original 80-minute periods have been shortened, but Alloway said lectures don’t always take up the full 80 minutes.
“It was sometimes a concentrated instruction time of 60 minutes. But then there was time to write. There was time to read. There was time to watch a video,” he said.
Other challenges brought on by the pandemic — teacher shortages, for example — have also benefited from the schedule change, administrators said. Teachers can take care of themselves and their families in the morning. Drivers have more time to replace sick reports.
Doulat, a senior from Upper Darby, said that even if students can’t see the effects every day, there has been a big positive impact.
“They are such small changes in our daily lives that we don’t notice,” he added. “But they’re slowly starting to build up and we’re really seeing the difference in our own lives.”
Brooke Schultz serves on the Corps for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues.
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