Philly mulls later start time for high schoolers amid pandemic planning

Jules E. Mastbaum High School

Jules E. Mastbaum High School on Frankford Avenue in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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With its hand forced by the coronavirus pandemic, the School District of Philadelphia may push high school start times back as far as 9:30 a.m.

By doing so, the district could stumble into an interesting experiment: what happens when tens of thousands of teenagers get 90 minutes more sleep than normal?

It’s a prospect that entices pediatricians and psychiatrists who’ve long argued that early high school start times disrupt natural adolescent sleep patterns — creating students who are less physically and mentally prepared to learn.

But the logistics of such a shift are fraught. Families and school staff worry later starts — and dismissals — will burden working parents, inhibit students from working their own jobs and generally throw routines into chaos.

The school district would not divulge its scheduling plans when asked, but it did confirm that it’s considering later school start times for older students. Two Philadelphia principals said they were under the impression that high schools would likely start at 9:30 a.m. — compared to 8 a.m. last year.

“There is planning underway to have staggered schedules,” said district spokesperson Monica Lewis in an email. “We needed to stagger arrival time to accommodate social distance efforts on school buses and we used research data to determine which group will benefit best for the later start time.”

The research suggests that delaying school start times for teenagers leads to more sleep, better academic results, less depression and better physical fitness. A handful of area school districts have already pushed back their schedules, and a state commission recently recommended that more secondary schools follow suit.

“I was delighted to hear that Philadelphia may be changing their secondary school start times,” said Dr. Gail Karafin, a school psychologist who served on the state commission’s advisory committee. “It will be a great test case.”

While few would argue that the pandemic has been a net benefit for students, some scientists see a silver lining in the fact that teenagers doing remote schooling have been able to self-regulate their sleep patterns.

Karafin says that in her private practice, she’s noticed that a lot of her teenage clients seem more rested and alert since in-person classes shut down in mid-March. “Their hair was very shaggy, but they seemed more rational,” said Karafin.

That said, the prospect of a sudden and radical shift in the school day concerns some families and administrators.

Isalene Johnson-Baptiste, mom to a rising senior at Roxborough High School, worries a 9:30 a.m. start could increase truancy because working parents won’t be able to take their children to school.

“You’re already at work at 9 o’clock in the morning,” said Johnson-Baptiste. “The likelihood of the child getting to school on time is slim to none — especially if they don’t like to go in the first place.”

As for her son, Johnson-Baptiste doesn’t love the idea of him leaving school later during the darker, winter months, especially since his commute home to North Philadelphia entails two bus rides.

Richard Gordon, principal at Paul Robeson High School in West Philadelphia, says he’s a proponent of later start times, in theory.

He’s concerned, however, that a big shift could throw off families that depend on older students to look after younger siblings. Plus, he knows that a lot of his students rely on income from after-school jobs.

“In high school, there are so many moving parts,” said Gordon. “Our students come with a lot of responsibilities. And we hope that school is one of the top five priorities, to be honest with you.”

He’s hoping the district will give individual schools some leeway if they want to start classes a bit earlier.

As with any discussion these days about the return to school, caveats abound. The first and largest is whether students will return to in-person school at all this fall.

The School District of Philadelphia released a plan last week that calls for most students to attend school in person twice a week and online three days a week, arguing that fully virtual school would be a detriment to the academic and social well being of students.

Many parents and staff, though, have already questioned the feasibility and safety of that plan.

“The plan that’s in place is still being massaged, still in development,” Gordon said.

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