Atlanta wakes sleeping giant with decision to start high school earlier

Many APS parents unhappy with plan to commence high school at 7:45 rather than 8:30

A note late Friday afternoon to Atlanta Public Schools parents announcing a new 7:45 a.m. first bell for high school students set off a weekend revolt, including a petition urging APS to keep the 8:30 start time.

The petition on Change.org cited CDC recommendations:

According to the CDC, ‘Not getting enough sleep is common among high school students and is associated with several health risks including being overweight, drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco, and using drugs, as well as poor academic performance. One of the reasons adolescents do not get enough sleep is early school start times. The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that middle and high schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later to give students the opportunity to get the amount of sleep they need, but most American adolescents start school too early.' We have followed the CDC's science carefully for the past year of Covid-19. There is no reason to stop now.

The APS letter to parents explained the reasons for shifting high school to an earlier opening time:

Due to the pandemic, we know that our students experienced unfinished learning last school year and some levels of learning loss over the course of this school year. Research, however, suggests that extended learning time can exponentially help to address learning gaps and levels of learning loss.

Our Academic Recovery Plan includes the implementation of school-based intervention. To ensure that all elementary schools have time and can effectively implement these interventions, we are extending the elementary school day by 30 minutes for the next three school years.

Working with our Operations and Transportation team, we have reviewed our bell schedule to accommodate the needs of our tiered transportation schedule. For the 2021-2022 school year, our bell schedule will be as follows:

● Elementary 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. (changed from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.)

● Middle School 9:05 a.m. – 4:05 a.m. (no change)

● High School 7:45 a.m. – 2:40 p.m. (changed from 8:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.

Within hours of learning the news, parents were reaching out to reporters saying the change flies in the face of science, medical recommendations, and national trends.

They are right. Teens typically stay up to 10 p.m. or later. For their ideal nine hours, they should sleep until 7 a.m., an impossibility when classes start 30 minutes later. Studies find delaying the start of high school reduces absenteeism and raises academic performance.

For example, after a Colorado district delayed start times in 2017 for middle school by 50 minutes, 8 a.m. to 8:50, and for high school by 70 minutes, 7:10 a.m. to 8:20, students reported getting more sleep. Scores on a measure of academic engagement increased.

Such findings, duplicated in many studies, led California to pass a law in 2019, due to go into effect in 2022, requiring classes for high schools begin no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics adopted a policy statement urging first bells at 8:30 or later, saying the adolescent sleep-wake cycles begin to shift up to two hours later at the start of puberty. The pediatricians said chronic sleep loss in adolescents is a common and easily fixable public health issues.

I have written a lot about this first bell debate and always hear from older readers contending today’s teens are too soft and need to learn to get up early to succeed in the real-world. However, that rationale deflated as flextime and remote working became more common in the real world. The argument is irrelevant now with the pandemic dramatically altering how, where and when Americans work.

Among the comments on the petition:

--Early start times for middle/high school students are not effective. Find more creative methods to address the needs of students who've fallen behind. Adding 30 minutes to the elementary school day seems like an easy fix for administrators but will likely do nothing positive for students or families.

--This new start time will impact many working families disproportionately. As a parent with 3 children in 3 different APS schools this fall, I am already challenged with transportation. This new start time schedule is not going to help.

--You will kill the momentum of the high schools with this move.

--Asking sleepy children to walk, bike or wait for the bus an hour before sunrise is dangerous.

Some Gwinnett parents pointed out to me that most of their high schools start between 7 and 7:25 a.m. and it works for them, including getting their high schoolers home earlier from sports practices and other after-school activities. Check out Gwinnett’s starting times here.

Your view?