Students walk into the school holding a rope while spaced apart from one another in order to maintain social distancing first day of school at Presumpscot Elementary on Sept. 14, 2020. The school board’s Operations Committee discussed last week the possibility of changing school start times. Brianna Soukup / Portland Press Herald

Parents in the Portland school district will soon be surveyed on delaying the start of school days for high school and middle school students next fall while starting elementary schools earlier.

The Portland Board of Education’s Operation Committee met last week to discuss changing the schedules to align with recommended healthy sleep guidelines for teenagers. The district tried in 2015 to make the change, but dropped its plans after community pushback, in part due to the how the later high school dismissal would impact students’ participation in activities and sports and their ability to work after-school jobs.

“I think it is the right thing to do. While it will take a significant amount of time and bandwidth, the educator leaders in the system believe we should be trying to move this forward this year,” Superintendent Xavier Botana said.

Teachers, however, are divided.

A recent Portland Education Association survey found no clear consensus on whether it was a good idea to change high school and middle school start times to 9 a.m. and elementary schools to 7:30 a.m. or 8:15 a.m. Of the 121 respondents, approximately 36% liked the idea, 33% didn’t and 31% said they were unsure or had no preference. Prior to the pandemic, the high school day started at 8 a.m.; Lincoln and Moore middle schools, 7:45 a.m.; and King Middle School, 7:55 a.m. Elementary schools in Portland started as early as 8:20 a.m. and as late as 9 a.m.

“You can see the very inconclusive feedback we got from that and that, I think, is something we need to be prepared for as we move into something like this,” Botana said.

He said expects the upcoming survey of parents and the issue itself “will bring people to board meetings to share their perspectives.”

Board Chairperson Emily Figdor feels now is the right time to change school start times.

“With COVID throwing everything up in the air, it’s a very unique opportunity for us to come back into the school year in the fall with start times that align to the science,” Figdor said.

But Operations Committee Chairperson Sarah Thompson said she wasn’t sure the timing was appropriate.

“To start off the fall with this is very aggressive given the atmosphere we are in currently,” she said.

Thompson said she wants to make the switch, but wants to make sure there is a broad dialogue about it.

“Something as significant as this, I am for taking our time and taking a look at the data and talking with people,” she said. “If we are pushing things through because everything else is up in the air and seeing what sticks, I think it is going to backfire on us.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends teenagers should get eight to 10 hours of sleep per night and that the school day for middle and high school students should start at 8:30 a.m. or later.

“The evidence strongly implicates earlier school start times (i.e., before 8:30 am) as a key modifiable contributor to insufficient sleep, as well as circadian rhythm disruption, in this population,” the Academy of Pediatrics wrote in a summary of a 2014 study. “Furthermore, a substantial body of research has now demonstrated that delaying school start times is an effective countermeasure to chronic sleep loss and has a wide range of potential benefits to students with regard to physical and mental health, safety, and academic achievement.”

Elementary school age children should get between nine and 12 hours a sleep a night, the Academy of Pediatrics says.

In 2017 and 2019, former Rep. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, unsuccessfully tried to get a bill passed requiring school districts to start high school after 8:30 a.m. Daughtry is now a member of the state Senate, where she serves as chairperson of Education and Cultural Affairs and is the assistant majority leader.

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