Most Pennsylvania middle and high school students start class too early in the morning to get healthy sleep. This could change soon thanks to legislation ((HB2105) just introduced by Representative Tim Briggs of Montgomery County, which directs the state department of education to study the relationship between teen sleep and school start times.
"We are on our way," says Gail Karafin, EdD, a school psychologist and leader of the Pennsylvania chapter of Start School Later, a nationwide nonprofit dedicated to ensuring safe, healthy, equitable school hours. She says that while the legislation is big news, "it comes on the heels of a lot of other hard work and progress thanks to the tireless work of student, parent, and professional volunteers."
Spreading the Word
The past few months have seen growing efforts around the state to raise awareness about teen sleep and school start times. Karafin recently met with members of the state legislature's Children and Youth Committee to discuss these issues and participated in a panel discussion on pediatric sleep issues led by pediatric hospitalist, Jason Komasz, MD, in collaboration with Doylestown Hospital, Central Bucks Family YMCA, Central Bucks Cares Education Foundation, and Central Bucks School District.
Karafin has also been leading a partnership between Pennsylvania Psychological Association (PPA) and the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, both of which support later school start times for teenagers. One goal, she says, is to prepare a brochure informing the public explaining shifts in circadian rhythms (body clocks) during adolescence and the resulting need for later school start times.
"These brochures would be distributed to all the Pennsylvania pediatric and psychology practice offices, " explains Karafin. These brochures would also include research linking early school start times to statistically significant increases in teen car crashes.
Last February, the League of Woman Voters sponsored a community program in Radnor and surrounding school districts, featuring Dr. Judith Owens, Director of the Boston Sleep Center, who presented on "Sleep and the Adolescent Brain." The video was shown again at another community forum last May in Chester Springs.
Petitioning and Advocating Change
The Radnor forum inspired another group of parents, doctors, and students in the Owen J. Roberts School District to address their own school board, asking that the current 7:30 a.m. start times for middle and high schools be moved to 8:30 a.m. or later, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Parents in the Central Bucks school district, led by Bucks County Chapter Leader, Michelle Crunkleton, are rallying together and in consultation with a local neuropsychologist are focusing a community survey on later school start times. They have also just launched a petition directed at all 13 school districts in Bucks County.
Advocates are gearing up in the Lehigh Valley, too, where Ronee Welch, a parent of four as well as a child, teen, and adult sleep coach, is leading the charge for change. "If parents aren't going to step up and ask their schools to consider making these extremely important time changes, then who is?" she recently wrote, urging parents to band together to work for change. "Most parents wouldn't knowingly let their child do something that puts them at risk for all the things I mentioned above, yet that's exactly what we're allowing by watching them struggle each and every day with having to go to school so early."
Students Working for Students
Last February a group of select high school students from the 13 Chester County High Schools conducted a workshop at the Chester County Intermediate Unit for the Student Forum that included research on several topics, including later start times for high schools. As a result of this presentation, Unionville High School student Matthew Daniels established a new student chapter of Start School Later.
In Radnor Township, another student, John Sutherby, testified at the local school board and created a website and social media pages for a website he created, A's Through Zzz's to raise awareness about the need to start school later. The website includes a video ad.
"Once people are finally aware of this prominent issue, actions can be taken," the website proclaims. "However, the first step is to make sure we are all informed on what sleep deprivation is and why it is an issue."
Why Legislation Matters
Despite clear calls from doctors and sleep researchers for later start times since the 1990s, and despite evidence that has already been called "irrefutable," most communities resist returning to schedules that allow for healthy sleep. Just last month, for example, the Greencastle-Antrim School Board voted unanimously to reject later starting times because parents and residents cited possible logistical challenges.
Pennsylvania's proposed statewide study could be key to building the political will to change. A favorable statewide report could make it easier for districts to make the case that they have science on their side -- and assure communities that perceived logistical challenges are either unfounded or surmountable.
If passed, this study would make Pennsylvania the third state to pass later start time legislation. In 2014 Maryland passed a bill directing the state department of health to study the issue, followed in 2016 by a second bill creating the Orange Ribbon incentive program to recognize districts with safe, healthy hours. Last year New Jersey passed a bill directing the state department of education to study the issue, much like the one proposed in Pennsylvania.
Karafin says that Pennsylvania citizens concerned with this issue can share personal experiences with early school start times and sleep deprivation with their state representative, cc'ing Representative Briggs. A brief letter might also include endorsements for later bell times by the AAP, CDC, and other leading health and education groups.
"The Start School Later website is filled with excellent information and resources for this letter," says Karafin. "Letters from executive directors and group leaders are important, too, especially professional groups, such as teachers, researchers, professional associations, etc. Mentioning something about the group, number of members, location, and how long (in years) the group has been focused on this issue and why the group is focused on later school start times for adolescents are important to describe."
Representative Tim Briggs can be reached at:
Mail: Hon. Tim Briggs
554 Shoemaker Road
King of Prussia, PA19406
Office Phone: (610) 768-3135
Fax: (610) 768-3112
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