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Our View: Students need sleep, so Rochester needs new plan

January 17, 2019

We are disappointed that the Rochester School Board, at the recommendation of Superintendent Michael Muñoz, has abandoned a proposal to use city buses to transport students to middle schools and high schools.

Still, we understand that decision, because the numbers weren’t adding up. Put another way, the numbers were adding up to a very big number. A plan that was supposed to save money looked as if it might actually cost the district an additional $6 million per year.

That wasn’t going to fly, so better to abandon this idea now than to have city officials and school district employees waste more time finalizing a plan that had zero chance of implementation.

The larger issue, however, cannot be ignored. Using city buses would have allowed a later start time at Rochester’s middle schools and high schools, and that goal should remain front-and-center for the school board in the coming months.

Put simply, we are short-changing our teenagers by expecting them to study algebra, chemistry or history at 7:45 a.m.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics and even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all have formally endorsed later school start times for adolescents. These organizations point out that most teens are hard-wired to be awake late into the evening and can’t get enough sleep if they have to be at school before 8 a.m.

If they are allowed to wake up later, they become more focused and alert, less likely to be late or absent, and less likely to be involved in a car crash on their way to school. (It’s also worth noting that there is a direct connection between sleep deprivation and depression and obesity among teens.)

School districts across the country have responded. Two years ago, Seattle public schools rejiggered their entire busing system to allow secondary students to begin school at 8:45, rather than 7:50. Students today report getting an average of 34 additional minutes of sleep each night. Grades are up. Tardiness and absences are down.

Public schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul are in the process of making similar transitions — and in that process, some elementary schools will have start times of 7:30 a.m.

That’s a precedent that Rochester should study.

If we truly are serious about wanting to give our teenagers the best chance to succeed academically (but are unwilling to pay a lot of extra taxpayer dollars to do so), then we see just one logical way forward; namely, Rochester must flip-flop its school start times and its two-tiered bus routes, with elementary students getting picked up first and starting school earlier.

Currently, elementary students start their school day after 9 a.m. These kids have little homework, go to sleep earlier than their teenage siblings and are far more alert at 7:30 a.m. Logically, it makes far more sense for them to be in class at 7:45.

Yes, such a change would present logistical challenges. Parents don’t like the idea of a 7-year-old waiting for a bus in the dark on a sub-zero January morning. And, in a city where after-school child care is both expensive and difficult to find, releasing elementary school students 90 minutes earlier would doubtless cause a lot of headaches.

And there would be concerns for high school students, too. Starting school an hour later would mean ending school an hour later, which would make it more difficult for students to hold after-school jobs. Athletics practices and club activities would run later into the evening, which could make homework more difficult to complete. Students being dismissed early to travel to sporting events would miss more classes.

So it’s inevitable that any change to school start times will cause some level of protest. Change is difficult, especially a change that involves the health and well-being of children and long-established family routines.

Ultimately, we see three options for the school district:

1. Ignore the data and do nothing until such time that the Legislature orders a statewide change in school start times.

2. Flip-flop elementary and secondary school start times and put up with the howls of protest that will result.

3. Spend whatever is necessary (perhaps raised through a new levy) to allow middle schools and high schools to start later without changing elementary start times.

We don’t like the idea of waiting for the Legislature to call the shots. Nor do we think Rochester should choose to ignore the scientific data about teens, sleep and academic success.

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