Seize the day, lengthen the night

Making change takes effort.

It’s often easier to follow the path we are already on than to change it for the better.

This is especially true in matters of public concern. While individual change may be difficult, institutional change takes a concerted effort.

For close to two decades, we have pushed on this page for a change that seems quite obvious to be a change for the good: a later start time for the high school day.

Philosopher George Santayana famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

So we will start with a bit of Guilderland school history in hopes the current school board will not repeat past school boards’ lack of action.

In February of 2004, Jesse Ramos, then a high-school freshman, told the Guilderland School Board, “Basically teenagers need more sleep.”

Wearing a dark suit and speaking in a serious, no-nonsense voice, he advocated a later start time for his school. Ramos told the board that most laymen think people need less sleep as they get older but recent research had show that, rather, teenagers have difficulty falling into deep and restorative sleep until midnight to 2 a.m., and lack of sleep increase the incidences of depression and attention deficit disorder, and makes students more prone to discipline problems.

Without the change, Ramos said, his peers would continue to fall asleep in class and get bad grades “and maybe a few will even kill themselves — who cares?” he challenged the board.

After speaking to the board, Ramos handed us a sheaf of articles, published in various scientific journals, on the subject of teenage sleep deprivation. When we asked Ramos what motivated him to address the board, he answered, “A whole bunch of students have discussed our frustration with being tired.”

The superintendent at the time, Gregory Aidala, responded that the three bus runs used for Guilderland’s elementary schools, middle school, and high school as well as after-school jobs and sports for high school students would make changing the high school’s 7:30 a.m. start time difficult.

Ramos then served on an 18-member task force — made up of parents, teachers, students, administrators, staff, school-board members, and the transportation supervisor — that three years later, in March 2007, concluded the shape of the school day wouldn’t be changing.

Aidala said of the task force’s work that so many interrelated factors are involved in the school day that seeking solutions is “very discouraging.”

“It was like this giant bubble,” he said, explaining that, if something were pushed in one place, something else popped out in another. There were, he said, “too many demands to provide everybody’s first choice.”

The school board president at the time, Richard Weisz, said, “I’ve always been a big believer that, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”

Sleep research, though, made it clear that it is broken. The Enterprise laid out the research at the time with some experts contending early high school start times were tantamount to abuse.

We reported on Guilderland guidance counselors who said teachers said some of their students weren’t fully awake or engaged until 8:30 a.m. and that middle school students transitioning to the high school had difficulty adjusting to the early start time.

We also advocated then — and continue to do so now — that sleep education be part of school health curriculum. Teens can be given the tools to gain control over their own sleep patterns by learning about circadian principles, reducing use of computer and television screens before bedtimes, and being active outdoors early in the day.

Fourteen years after Ramos had first raised the issue — he would by then have been well past adolescence and no longer in need of the extra sleep — a new superintendent at Guilderland, Marie Wiles, put out the call for members of a new task force to look at the issue.

“In recent years,” Wiles wrote in a September 2018 letter to the Enterprise editor, “there has been a lot of discussion in local and national news about the circadian rhythms of adolescents and the amount of sleep they need to be healthy, safe, and fully engaged in their learning. These discussions have suggested that the early arrival times at many high schools may contribute to students getting insufficient sleep to feel and perform at their best.”

That task force considered research that is now indisputable.

“Sleep deprivation among adolescents is epidemic,” says an article on the subject, posted by the United States National Library of Medicine - National Institutes of Health, which notes that delayed sleep phase during puberty is likely a common phenomenon in mammals, not specific to human adolescents, and is experienced around the world.

“Adolescent changes in the timing of sleep reflect a developing circadian and homeostatic system. These changes are common across cultures and mammalian species …. For policy makers, teachers and parents, these results provide a clear mandate. The effects of sleep deprivation on grades, car accident risk, and mood are indisputable.”

The Guilderland committee considered the medical and mental-health risks of insufficient sleep, ranging from increased obesity and metabolic dysfunction to increased anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. The committee also considered the cognitive and academic effects, including difficulty with complex tasks, trouble with attention and memory, lower grades, worse school attendance, and increased drop-out rates.

Although the research was clear, the Guilderland committee realized it needed help with transportation challenges. In October 2019, a school bus consultant presented five different route configurations — only one didn’t cost more.

Through the fall and winter, the consultants worked with Guilderland’s transportation department to create runs and test their feasibility.

Then, last March, the pandemic struck, shutting schools and putting progress on hold.

Guilderland High School students coincidentally got a much later start time this school year as everything was reconfigured to accommodate six-foot distancing in classrooms to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The pandemic taught all of us the value of paying attention to scientific research in solving public health problems.

Now, the task force has once again picked up its work and made a recommendation: Guilderland’s five elementary schools would start at 7:45 a.m. and end at 2 p.m.; the high school day would run from 8:20 a.m. to 3:25 p.m.; and middle school would start at 9:05 a.m. and end at 3:45 p.m.

The subject was broached anew as Wiles presented a draft of next year’s budget proposal to the school board last Tuesday. The proposal for a later high school start time involves no additional costs, Wiles told the school board.

The kindergartners, first-, and second-graders “did just fine” with an earlier start time during the pandemic, Wiles said. The proposal though, also calls for a middle school start time that is 20 minutes later.

“It will require some fine-tuning,” said Wiles.

Gloria Towle-Hilt, the board’s vice president, said the time change would be “extremely stressful” for the middle school. She said that with kids getting home at almost five o’clock, they would “shove dinner in their mouth and run off to something.”

Towle-Hilt asked, “What kind of family life is that going to be?”

We’ve always liked Towle-Hilt’s direct approach and we respect her experience both as a mother and as a long-time former Farnsworth Middle School teacher, but we urge all of the board members to work together to do the fine-tuning required to make a later high school start time a reality.

Don’t let the “giant bubble” that stymied an earlier task force render this current initiative moot. There is a clear priority here: The high school needs to start later for the well being of its students.

There is no reason to have another four generations of high school students suffer needlessly. The solution is clear. It is time to seize the day — and lengthen the night for the good of our sleep-deprived adolescents.

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