Even if COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror by next fall, Harvard schools will not be going back to the same old schedule. Based on Monday’s unanimous School Committee endorsement, Bromfield classes will start half an hour later than they have in the past, at 8:15 a.m. rather than 7:45 a.m.
“Hopefully, the students will appreciate an extra half-hour of sleep in the morning,” Chair SusanMary Redinger summed up the change.
The move to a later start time is a pilot program, School Superintendent Linda Dwight told committee members, and the new schedule will be reviewed after a year. The change had been under consideration for many months before everything was interrupted by COVID-19. The schools had conducted surveys of parents, teachers, and students on the issue and held at least one public forum.
In a 2014 study, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) called insufficient sleep among adolescents “an important public health issue.” There is a shift in adolescents’ circadian rhythms, the study said, that makes it difficult for teenagers to fall asleep early enough on school nights to get the 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep they need. Many high schools in Massachusetts start at 7:30 a.m. or even earlier, and some students board school buses well before 7 a.m. That lack of sleep, the AAP study said, is linked to daytime sleepiness, difficulty concentrating in class, behavioral problems, and absenteeism. All those issues hinder learning.
Both the AAP and the journal Education Week have called for schools to shift start times for middle and high schools to 8:30 a.m. at the earliest. But complex bus schedules limit how much change Harvard schools can make.
School buses in Harvard serve both Bromfield and Hildreth Elementary School, with Bromfield students arriving at school in the first morning run and elementary students being picked up in a second run. In the afternoon, Bromfield students are again dismissed first, and elementary students go home in the next run. So one problem in moving the Bromfield start time was to do so with as little change as possible to the elementary schedule, Dwight said.
Surveys showed that elementary parents wanted to keep their current schedule, so the solution could not be simply to switch the two schools’ bus schedules, making Hildreth Elementary School’s start time and dismissal earlier and Bromfield’s times later. Some families count on older children to be the first ones home so they can look after younger ones in the afternoon. And many families need to have elementary children at school early enough for parents to commute to work.
So the proposed change does not move Bromfield’s start as late as the AAP’s recommended 8:30 a.m., but gets it substantially closer at 8:15 a.m. And parents can drop off children at Hildreth Elementary School at 8:50 a.m., only five minutes later than the current 8:45 a.m. The change requires the buses to run on a tighter schedule, eliminating the current waiting time between the two runs.
Several other schools in the area have also moved their start times later for middle and high school students. Concord-Carlisle High School was one of the first to change, moving its start time to 8 a.m. in 2017. More recently, Acton-Boxborough Regional High School shifted from 7:23 to 7:50 a.m. for its first class, and Ayer Shirley moved from 7:18 to 7:50 a.m. Wayland switched to an 8:35 a.m. start time last fall.
At the School Committee’s March 8 discussion of the Bromfield change, Dwight said the new schedule was “in a gray area” between the administration’s responsibility and School Committee’s jurisdiction, but she would like to have the committee’s endorsement for the new times, which this week she received. But, at the earlier meeting, both Suzie Allen and Shannon Molloy said they hoped school administrators could soon find a way to move Bromfield’s start time all the way to 8:30 a.m., as the AAP recommends.