School board delays decision on changing school start times

OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee County School Board has decided to delay a decision on whether or not to change school start times in the district. The topic was on the agenda at a workshop held on June 19. The school board will take up the issue of school start times again at their January 2019 meeting.

The issue arose due to recent studies which have shown that later start times were beneficial to high school students. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), during puberty, adolescents become sleepy later at night and need to sleep later in the morning as a result in shifts in their circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythm is the internal body clock that regulates biological processes in a 24 hour cycle. It helps ensures certain body functions work in harmony with our sleep wake cycle, including body temperature and hormone secretion like melatonin which is key to helping us sleep.

Most public middle and high schools in the United States start before 8:30 a.m., and that combination of late bedtimes and early school start times results in most adolescents not getting enough sleep.

Researchers at the Boston Children’s Hospital have noted that being out of biological sync with school schedules forces adolescents to wake up when they are at their lowest level of alertness (the equivalent of 3 a.m. for adults). They also miss out on rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, which is concentrated in the early morning hours and is critical for forming memories and learning new information. On weekends, late bedtimes and late wake times become even more extreme, contributing to the phenomenon termed “social jet lag” and exacerbating sleepiness on school days.

During the workshop, Okeechobee superintendent of schools Ken Kenworthy presented data that suggested that schools with later start times have less absences than schools with earlier start times. Creekside High School located in St. Johns County Florida has a start time of 9:15 a.m. and only 5.7 percent of students have missed 21 days or more. At OHS class begins at 7 a.m. and 21.86 percent of students have missed 21 days or more. Both schools have a similar population of around 2,000 students. Creekside has also earned a gold medal in 2018 from U.S. News and World Report based on their students performance on state-required tests and how well they prepare students for college.

The Okeechobee County School district published a survey seeking the opinions of parents, students and teachers within the district on changing school start times. On the question of whether the current 7 a.m. start time is too early at OHS the results showed the community was almost split; 51 percent of respondents said no, while 48 percent said yes.

The school board also heard from representatives of the school district’s department of transportation on what would need to be done if start times changed. Because of the number of buses available and the turnaround time between schools the only way to accommodate a later high school start time would be to combine high schoolers and middle schoolers onto the same bus schedules.

This would also push elementary schools to start earlier, and the school board was not comfortable with elementary age children waiting at bus stops in the dark before the sun rises.

The board also considered shifting every school’s start times 30 minutes later, but worried that may not be a big enough change to make a difference.

The domino effect that comes with changing school start times along with the community’s 50/50 vote in the survey gave board chairperson Jill Holcomb pause in instituting any drastic changes this school year.

“I do think high school starts too early, but I don’t want it to start too late as well,” said Ms. Holcomb. “I want to be able to move it without impacting after school activities or jobs.”
Board member Malissa Morgan agreed with Ms. Holcomb.

“I’m afraid if we move the time too much, it’ll be a domino effect and a lot of other things will be impacted,” explained Ms. Morgan.

Unable to come up with a solution and not feeling comfortable in disrupting things, the board agreed to look further into the issue and consider it again in their January 2019 meeting.

“This has a potential to impact every family in this district,” said Mr. Kenworthy. “Everyone has developed their life around our school times and I feel like June is too late in the game to make changes this year.”

The school board has asked Mr. Kenworthy to get more feedback on the proposed change from the individual principals in the Okeechobee County school district.

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