Central York wants to be 'ahead of the curve' with school start times

Central York High School in Springettsbury Township, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Central York School District opted on Monday to continue study of a plan that would shift school start times as part of a three-year comprehensive plan.

Research shows middle and high school students benefit from at least 30 minutes more sleep, said Superintendent Michael Snell, whether it's making them more attentive in school or helping them avoid early morning car crashes.

"It just takes adolescents an hour or two to sort of wake up, or get out of the fog," he said.

Central plans to address teen sleep by pushing back secondary student start times.

The district's structures committee on Monday released its preliminary schedule for the shift  — which would be a flipped day for elementary and secondary students.

Elementary students would shift from starting at 9 a.m. to starting at 7:45 a.m., and secondary students would switch from 7:45 a.m. to 8:55 a.m.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association and National Sleep Foundation all say teens need between about 8½ to 9½ hours of sleep.

A 2017 study from the New Jersey Department of Education looked at statewide data for schools with later start times, and Pennsylvania is scheduled to release its own data in October, Snell said.

The state Department of Education confirmed that a state Senate resolution passed in September authorized a study led by the Joint State Government Commission.

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The resolution memo cited research that lack of proper sleep for teens creates a higher risk for physical and mental health problems, suicidal thoughts and decline in academic performance.

"One of the concerns I have will be the impact on the positive and negative side of our younger students and younger families," board member Michael Wagner said.

Michael Snell, superintendent of the Central York School District.

Snell said there is not much research yet into the effects of earlier start times on elementary-age students, but other factors need to be considered.

Some parents rely on older students being home first to take care of younger students, he said, and the district's YMCA after care program — which serves each elementary building — would need an extension.

At the secondary level, athletes might miss all of their flex period and some of their last class period to make it to games, but there could be an option to do a free period in the morning instead.

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A good local precedent is in place, as South Western School District flipped its school day at least 12 years ago, said South Western Assistant Superintendent Daniel Hartman in an email.

Central board member Edward Blankenstein said he's spoken to South Western administrators, who have reported no issues and said secondary students are more attentive.

"There's so many factors that come into play," when it comes to student success, said board member Joseph Gothie, so he said he'd like to look at the experience of the district from the year it made the switch.

Blankenstein said the onus would be on parents to ensure younger students are monitored prior to boarding the bus in the early morning. In the winter, bus pickups often occur during darkness. 

Board President Eric Wolfgang said he would like to explore alternate times without a completely flipped schedule — saying some districts have shifted secondary times back 10 to 15 minutes without adjusting elementary times. 

But Wolfgang's proposed alternative would require the district to double the number of buses, said Scott Billig, assistant principal at Sinking Springs Elementary School.

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Ryan Billet, assistant to the superintendent for administration, said the district would need about an hour to an hour and 10 minutes between runs to allow buses to make it to the edges of the district. 

"Part of this could also be a conversation of how long is the school day — too long, too short?" Snell asked.

Wolfgang said there's talk of the state mandating later secondary start times, but now is the time for the district to involve the community and figure out logistics.

"Rather than have them tell us what's best for us, I'd rather have us be ahead of that curve," he said.