If a new school schedule is passed by the Portland Board of Education May 18, the school day at King Middle School and other middle and high schools in the city would run from 8:20 a.m. to 2:50. The move would better align the schedule to sleep recommendations for teenagers. File photo

The Portland school superintendent wants to push back the start time for middle and high school students starting next fall to better align with healthy sleep guidelines for teenagers, but a longtime school board member questions if it’s the right time to make the change.

The school committee on May 18 will decide whether to support the new schedule, which would also result in changes to elementary school start times.

“I do anticipate once people are informed that we will get significant pushback,” Operations Committee Chairperson Sarah Thompson said at a May 6 meeting.

Thompson, a member since 2006, said she prefers resuming the pre-pandemic schedule in the fall and using the school year as time for the operations committee and the board to discuss start times further and to allow for public engagement.

Superintendent Xavier Botana proposes starting the day at middle schools and high schools at 8:20 a.m. and ending at 2:50 p.m. Elementary school start times would be in two tiers. East End, Longfellow, Ocean Avenue and Talbot elementary schools would start at 7:40 a.m. and end at 2:10 p.m., and classes at Lyseth, Presumpscot, Reiche and Rowe elementary schools would be from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Operations Committee member Jeffrey Irish said he was torn about supporting Botana’s recommendation. While he supports the schedule change, he thinks the public needs more time to weigh in on it before it would go into effect when schools are scheduled to fully reopen Aug. 31.

Irish supports returning school schedules next school year to pre-pandemic levels with middle school starting as early as 7:45 a.m. and high school at 8 a.m. Elementary schools in Portland started as early as 8:20 a.m. and as late as 9 a.m.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommend teenagers get eight to 10 hours of sleep per night and that the school day for middle and high school students should start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. Elementary school age children should get between nine and 12 hours a sleep a night, the Academy of Pediatrics says.

Nathaniel Watson, a past president of the American Academy, said two-thirds of high school students are sleeping seven hours or less on school nights.

“It’s a big issue in this country,” said Watson, an associate professor of neurology at the University of Washington who the co-directs the university’s Medicine Sleep Center. “We know shorter sleep impacts school performance and increases depression, suicidal ideation, risk-taking behavior (and) athletic injuries.”

Watson said there are few, if any, public policies that a school board could put in place that would have as many positive benefits as delaying school start times for teenagers.

Later start time for middle and high school students is something that the district has been looking into off and on for more than five years.

The district proposed a change in 2015, but the idea was met with opposition from parents, who were concerned with how a later high school release would impact students’ abilities to care for younger siblings, hold jobs or participate in athletics or other after-school activities. Thompson said there were also logistical issues, such as transportation, that couldn’t be figured out.

“It wasn’t that we didn’t want to do it. There was just so many different dynamics coming into play at once,” Thompson said at the workshop.

Earlier this year, the district looked into starting middle and high schools next year closer to the 9:45 start time at the middle school and 9:30 a.m. start time at the high school that were put in place because of the pandemic, but that idea was dropped.

Junior Emily Cheung, who represents Deering High School on the board, said she and her classmates have gotten use to sleeping later this school year. She hoped that would be the case for the 2021-2022 school year as well.

“There have been questions about if we’d be able to sleep in and go to school later next year as well,” she said. “It’s something everyone has been very excited about.”

Board Chairperson Emily Figdor said she’s glad there is movement towards a later start time, but had thought with everyone’s schedules already askew because of the pandemic, the timing was right to make the change to the 9:45 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. start times.

“I continue to think its particularly ideal because everyone has had to change their schedules, so introducing more than when everything is disrupted might have been easier,” she said at the workshop. “But I think this take a small step towards that is a good step forward.”

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