New England lawmakers mull later school openings, time zone change
BOSTON (AP) — A drive to push back start times for Massachusetts schools has intersected with an ongoing study into the merits of shifting the state to an altogether different time zone. Whether either suggestion has enough momentum to succeed is in doubt.
On the one hand are concerns about sleep-deprived teens and sunshine-starved winter days. On the other, there's reluctance to tinker with time-honored schedules that could impact everything from child care arrangements to interscholastic sports and interstate travel.
The Massachusetts chapter of the advocacy group Start School Later delivered thousands of petitions Tuesday asking the Legislature to pass a law requiring high schools and middle schools to start the day at 8:30 a.m. or later.
In many communities, school bells ring at 7:30 a.m. or earlier at middle and high schools. Those early start times wreak havoc with the biological clocks of adolescents conditioned by nature to go to sleep later and wake up later, according to many scientists and researchers.
Parents who struggle daily to coax groggy teens out the door would likely agree.
Studies cited by supporters of later start times show that by high school, fewer than one in four adolescents get enough sleep. The consequences can go beyond mere sleep deprivation to include diminished academic performance, depressed mood and more accidents.
A bill filed by Democratic Rep. Paul McMurtry would create a five-member panel to explore the issues.
Some school systems in Massachusetts and elsewhere have experimented with flipping start times for younger and older grades, on the premise that elementary-school age children tend to be perkier in the morning. School systems avoid additional bus costs, but it can create headaches for working parents needing to rearrange child care schedules.
While many school administrators acknowledge the benefits of later start times for teens, they also cite drawbacks. Athletics and other extracurricular activities might be curtailed and kids may find it harder to work in after-school jobs.
On Wednesday, the topic of school start times surfaced during the final public meeting of a special commission studying the possibility of Massachusetts shifting from the Eastern to the Atlantic time zone. Such a change would, in effect, keep the state on the equivalent of Daylight Saving Time year-round, avoiding clock changes in November and March and extending daylight on winter afternoons.
Dr. Judith Owens, director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children's Hospital and a commission member, said switching time zones — resulting in the sun rising one hour later on winter mornings — could place children at risk by forcing them to wait at bus stops or walk to school in the dark.
"I think that would be a disaster," said Owens, who strongly supports the start school later movement. Any time zone shift, she argued, must be coupled with rules preventing schools from starting earlier than 8 a.m. in the younger grades and 8:30 a.m. for middle and high school students.
It's far from the only complication new time zones might present. Skeptics argue Massachusetts should not even consider moving to Atlantic time unless other East Coast states, or at a minimum New England and New York, are prepared to follow suit. Putting Massachusetts out of sync with its neighbors several months a year, they say, would create confusion and potential disruptions in airline and train schedules; it could even affect television programming.
"There are a lot of challenges there and a lot of concerns," said Republican state Rep. Paul Frost, another commission member.
The panel plans to issue recommendations later this year.