Montgomery County turns out in support of later school starts

ROCKVILLE, Md. — Montgomery County is once again considering pushing back high school start times to allow teenagers to get more sleep.

As it stands now, high school students have to report by 7:25 a.m.

Last summer, Superintendent Joshua Starr decided not to go ahead with a plan that would have delayed bell times by 50 minutes and made other changes, in part because of the cost.

So six new options have been drawn up.

One would shift high, middle and elementary school start times back by as little as 20 minutes. Another would change the bell schedule so that elementary schools would start first.

Two public hearings were held Thursday night in Rockville, and the vast majority of those who spoke at the later of the two hearings were in favor of later start times.

Iris Berendes, a ninth-grader at Walt Whitman High, has to wake up at 5:30 a.m. to make it to school on time, and says homework and after-school activities often keep her up late.

“I would say that three out of the five days of school each week, I get to bed at about 11 o’clock, leaving me with six hours of sleep each of those nights.”

She’s hoping for an 8:30 a.m. start time.

Rosalind van der Does De Willebois, a seventh-grader, says she’s already having trouble getting enough sleep.

“I love to learn, but I dread school each morning because I’m so incredibly tired. This morning, I put tap water in my cereal bowl.”

Eric Phelps is a parent of two high-schoolers who have to get up earlier than most to catch a bus to the Poolesville magnet program.

“I’ve seen firsthand how a lack of sleep has affected my son’s health. Over the course of the week his energy goes down; it takes longer for him to complete his assignments, and he suffers from migraine headaches. He spends much of the weekend trying to catch up on the sleep that he didn’t get during the week,” Phelps said.

Dr. Danny Lewin, associate director of sleep medicine at Children’s National Medical Center, told the meeting that changing school start times “a no-brainer.”

“Chronic sleep loss in teens is now at an all-time high, with 60 percent of ninth-graders and 77 percent of 12th-graders getting insufficient, deficient sleep,” he said.

“Shift work has been labeled a carcinogen,” he added. “In essence, we are asking our children, our adolescents, to be shift workers. So there’s more to consider than just the cost of buses.”

Some people held up signs at the hearing; other signs were posted on the walls. One read, “More ZZZZZs Pleezz.” Another read, “We’re tired of this — MCPS start school later.”

Two children showed up in pajamas and slippers with eye black under their eyes to make them look sleepy.

A decision by the school board on whether to change start times, and how, is expected Feb. 10.

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Michelle Basch

Michelle Basch is a reporter and anchor at WTOP.

Follow @WTOP on Twitter and WTOP on Facebook.

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