MIDDLESEX - A little over five years ago now, superintendents representing a dozen school districts in the Middlesex League urged their home communities to delay the start of classes for adolescents until at least 8 a.m.

At the time acknowledging a host of obstacles standing in the way of implementing such a drastic change, some political observers questioned whether the recommendation could ever garner the widespread public support needed to become reality.

Now, with the start of the 2021-2022 academic year about a month away, the movement to push back the opening bell for local teenagers is spreading beyond the Middlesex League.

In fact, just this past June, Andover’s School Committee, after appointing a School Start Time Working Group two years prior to study the issue, voted to delay by a half-hour the start of classes for middle school students beginning this September.

Under the proposal, Andover middle schoolers will begin classes at 8:15 a.m. - the same time as the opening bell at the high school - while elementary school start times will be pushed back 15 minutes to 9 a.m.

In rendering the decision, which had been debated since at least 2018, Andover’s School Committee contended that with concerns about student health front and center during the COVID-19 crisis, the new schedule made a lot of sense.

Specifically, a study committee formed in 2019 to consider the later start referenced a myriad of medical studies which conclude that adolescent sleeping patterns are incompatible with an early morning classroom routine.

“Throughout the pandemic, we have heard from many across the community with concerns about student well-being and mental health, and the importance of making evidence-based decisions informed by science…The key value of this initiative is to provide the opportunity for a positive impact on student well-being and enhancing physical and mental health,” the town’s School Committee explained in a statement posted to the district’s website.

As the late start movement gains steam, a handful of school districts within the Middlesex League, including Andover’s neighbors in Wilmington and Tewksbury, are amongst the last holdouts in adopting the 2016 recommendation of superintendents.

In 2019, officials in Wilmington, hoping like Andover to implement the schedule change for the 2021-2022 school year, formed its own 22-member study committee to examine how best to implement the change. The group has yet to present its findings to the community.

Meanwhile, in Woburn, several School Committee members earlier this summer insisted the city’s students are being put at a competitive disadvantage by being forced to report to classes earlier than their peers in neighboring cities and towns.

According to Woburn School Committee member Dr. John Wells, while in years past the district has been hesitant to implement the recommended change due to potential disruptions to busing schedules and family and teacher work routines, he believes the pandemic response highlighted the school system’s ability to adapt quickly to change.

“One thing that COVID has shown us is that school systems are flexible. It also shows that jobs and so forth are also going to be more flexible [with many expecting to continue working from home],” said Wells during a June school board meeting.

“I’d like to echo Dr. Wells concerning [this issue],” School Committee member Andrew Lipsett later remarked. “[The benefits of starting later] is one thing I saw very clearly during the pandemic. The high school kids came to rely on getting to sleep later on [some days during our hybrid learning schedule].”

Superintendents’ 2016 memo

The ongoing debate in regards to school starting times is rooted in a March of 2016 position statement by the Middlesex League of Superintendents, who all agreed high school classes should start no earlier than 8 a.m. by the start of the 2018-2019 academic year.

At the time, the dozen superintendents, a handful of whom have since retired, argued that though the schedule change would create a significant disruption to parental routines, athletic event schedules, and popular after-school programs, their recommendation was underpinned by decades of brain and sleep research.

“The research is clear on this topic that later start times support the social and emotional needs of our high school students. The Middlesex League Superintendents collectively wanted to express our clear support for later high school start times,” read the 2016 statement.

As recently as 2017, studies cited by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the American Medical Association warn the vast majority of teenagers - perhaps as many as 87 percent of them - are not coming close to getting eight hours of sleep.

Exacerbating the problem, according to medical researchers, is the still unexplained phenomenon that hits children at puberty, when their sleep cycles are delayed by two hours. The end result, according to the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics, is that adolescents are biologically programmed to fall asleep later than their younger peers.

Citing some of those findings earlier this June, Woburn officials like Lipsett insisted that the city’s students need to join the vast majority of other Middlesex League members in adopting the later schedule.

“There’s a genuine benefit to their emotional well-being and their physical health that’s backed up by the scientific data,” the School Committee member reasoned.

The latest Middlesex League community to adopt the later start, Lexington’s Public Schools will join with Andover in instituting a later start beginning this school year.

Under a revised schedule adopted by Lexington’s School Committee in the fall of 2020, the opening bell at the high school will be delayed by 45 minutes to a 8:30 a.m. sounding time. Middle school start times of 8 a.m. will remain unchanged, while elementary school pupils will start their school day 15 minutes later at 8:45 a.m.

Prior to the Lexington decision last fall, the last community to adopt the change was Reading, where in 2019, the School Committee agreed to delay the beginning of high schoolers’ school day by an hour to 8:30 a.m.

The first Middlesex League district to implement a later start, Melrose school officials led the movement by adopting the recommendation shortly after the Middlesex League Superintendents unveiled their stance on the matter in 2016. Watertown and Weston approved the initiative soon after.

Per votes taken during the 2018/2019 school year, the local School Committees in Winchester, Burlington, and Stoneham later joined in delaying morning classes. School officials in Belmont then adopted the change effective with the 2019/2020 school year.

Besides Woburn, Wilmington, and Tewksbury, school officials in Wakefield have also yet to act on the proposal.

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