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More Maine Schools Opt For Later Morning Starts

Linda Coan O'Kresik
Bangor Daily News
Camden Hills Regional High School students file through the lobby after being dismissed from school Friday afternoon.

CAMDEN, Maine — Midcoast school districts are considering joining the ranks of others in Maine that have delayed the start of the school day, all in the name of sleep.

Regional School Unit 40, RSU 13 and the Five Town Community School District are collectively vetting the possibility of pushing back the school day by at least 30 minutes. The three school districts consist of 16 towns in Knox, Lincoln and Waldo counties.

“The science behind adolescents having more sleep before they go to school is absolutely solid,” RSU 13 Superintendent John McDonald said Thursday.

Maria Libby, superintendent of MSAD 28 — part of the Five Town CSD — said Wednesday that the vast majority of parents in her district support starting school later. FiveTown CSD is comprised of Appleton, Camden, Hope, Lincolnville and Rockport.

Earlier this school year they polled parents in a survey, similar to one currently circulating in RSU 40 and RSU 13, to gauge interest. Results indicated that between 80 percent and 90 percent of the parents and students polled are in favor of pushing back the school day, Libby said.

“We’re fairly committed in our district to doing something,” she said.

The midcoast districts are attempting to make the transition at the same time, but timing and other logistical concerns might prevent that from happening, Libby said.

Libby’s district will likely change its start time to some extent regardless of what the other regional schools do, she said, because “the science is so compelling, [and] we are committed to making a change.”

McDonald agreed, but his district, which includes Rockland, Owls Head, Cushing, Thomaston and South Thomaston, is still in the information gathering phase. A survey will go out to parents and students next week, similar to the one circulating in RSU 40, to gauge interest and whether it’s perceived as a need among parents and students. RSU 40 is comprised of Friendship, Union, Waldoboro, Warren and Washington.

Compelling evidence

Several districts across Maine have already adopted new start times in the last year, including Portland, South Portland, Old Orchard Beach, Dayton, Cape Elizabeth, Westbrook, Falmouth, Brunswick and Biddeford.

The science behind these decisions, though, is not new. In fact, it’s decades old.

Biddeford Superintendent Jeremy Ray, whose district was one of the first in the state to push back its start times — about an hour at both middle and high school levels — said Thursday he thinks there is greater awareness now of the evidence in support of pushing back start times because of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s definitive recommendation to schools in 2015.

“Once the CDC made that recommendation, that was a really important piece,” Ray said.

This thinking is part of a growing national trend among districts, spurred by studies released in the last few years from national health organizations, such as the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics, that cite medical evidence to make the case for later start times. Beginning school before 8:30 a.m. puts young people at a severe disadvantage, both in terms of academic performance and fostering a healthy lifestyle, experts have said.

The CDC, in the 2015 report, called adolescents’ chronic lack of adequate sleep a “public health concern.” Since 2007, only about 31 percent of adolescents are believed to get sufficient sleep on a regular basis, according to the report. About two-thirds of high school students lack adequate sleep.

The proliferation of science-based evidence that adolescents aren’t getting the necessary amount of sleep suggests that they need between at least eight and a half hours and nine and a half hours each night.

Without it, experts say, not only is there a higher likelihood of tardiness, absence and an inability to focus and retain information, but students are more susceptible to depression, anxiety, substance use, obesity and a weakened immune system.

And delaying school start times district-wide is widely seen as having “the potential for the greatest population impact,” according to the CDC study.

Many experts suggest the only way to ensure teenagers and young people achieve adequate rest is by starting at 8:30 a.m.

A bill — LD 468 — before the Legislature right now aims to maximize that impact. If passed, it would mandate that all high schools, by 2019, wouldn’t start before 8:30 a.m. Attempts to contact the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, for comment on this story were unsuccessful.

In Bangor, local schools Superintendent Betsy Webb said the elementary schools start at 9 a.m. and the middle and high schools start just after 8 a.m.

In other words, there hasn’t been a need to examine delayed start times in Bangor, Webb said Friday, because “the very things that the other schools were trying to accomplish for the [later] start times, we already have in place.”

It’s because of situations like this, according to Ray, the Biddeford superintendent, that rather than have the state mandate when schools should start, it should be “a local decision.”

‘So many ifs’

Ray, whose district last fall delayed middle and high school start times by at least an hour, said there has already been a marked difference there. Schools in his district now start after 8:30 a.m.

The overall attendance rate has increased by one percent, which is notable in a year’s time, he said Thursday. And at Biddeford High School, the nurse has reported having almost 400 fewer student visits than last year.

A uniform start time would make it easier for school districts to coordinate with each other, McDonald said, which is what midcoast schools are still trying to do on a regional scale. It’s figuring out how to get there that’s the trouble, he said.

“Our families are working families, and it’s tough. Every parent I’ve talked to has basically said the same thing: they definitely believe [children and adolescents] would benefit from more sleep, but what is this going to do to my schedule?” McDonald said.

RSU 40 School Board member Sara Andrews, whose son is a senior at Medomak Valley High School, said she doesn’t know if it’s worth the hassle.

“There’s just so much that’s going to be affected,” she said, and there are “so many ifs. We don’t have after school places for kids to go like the big cities do. What works for one area isn’t necessarily going to work for all areas.”

Andrews said she started school earlier than 8:30 a.m., as most people did — “I grew up through it, everybody grew up through it. It’s not broken, so why are we fixing it?”

This story appears through a media partnership with Bangor Daily News.