Later start times for some Portland schools draw mixed reaction

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As many institutions evaluate which lessons learned from the pandemic should be carried into the future, Portland Public Schools have chosen one: starting school later.

Beginning in the fall, most secondary students will start classes at a later time than they did pre-pandemic, during the 2019-2020 school year. Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana recommended the changes based on data from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Some educators and parents, however, don’t support the decision, in part because of the potential impact on low-income students.

Students at Portland High School, above, the city’s two other high schools, and its middle schools will start classes later than they did in pre-pandemic years beginning next school year, in an effort to align with recommendations about how much sleep adolescents need. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

The prospect of beginning school at a later time in Portland has been floated since 2015, without much action. The pandemic, however, forced schools to start later this year, with middle and high school classes not starting until 9 a.m. – more than an hour later than many students started in 2019.

According to district documents, the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control, and the National Sleep Foundation all conclude that adolescents should average about nine hours of sleep per night to achieve optimal health, performance, and brain development.

The School Board by a vote of 10-2 approved Botana’s proposal at its May 18 meeting. Board members Sarah Jordan Thompson and Jeff Irish were opposed.

Middle and high school students, with the exception of those attending Portland Arts and Technology High School, will start school next year at 8:20 a.m. and be dismissed at 2:50 p.m. Prior to the pandemic, middle-schoolers started at 7:45 a.m. and high school students started at 8 a.m.

PATHS students will attend classes from 8 a.m.-10:30 a.m. or 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. 

The board also unanimously approved a resolution that the schools will continue to work toward starting “as late as is practicable,” including evaluating options to move the start time to 8:30 a.m. for middle- and high-schoolers during the 2022-2023 year.

Options will also be evaluated for 2022-2023 for elementary school students, including not starting classes until 8 a.m. 

More than one student spoke May 18 in favor of beginning classes later, calling later start times a silver lining that came from going to school during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Lincoln Middle School Principal Suellyn Santiago also said she and other middle school administrators have seen benefits from starting classes at 9 a.m. this year, including a “huge decrease” in the number of tardy and absent students, and more students coming in before school for extra help. 

“We’re finding that this year the student engagement and kids being rested and ready is a dramatic difference,” Santiago said.

Lyman Moore eighth-grader Cedar Levin, who will be a freshman at Portland High School next year, echoed that sentiment. Levin called the later start time this year “the only really good thing about the pandemic,” and said she has been more engaged because of it.

“You don’t have to look that far to find evidence about how it’s better to sleep in and get more sleep,” Levin said.

Portland High School teacher Beth Romano Arsenault, however, discouraged the board from taking any action on the proposal and urged members to first speak with students, parents, and staff.

Arsenault said though research can be a “valuable tool” in creating policy, it is often too expensive to implement in the real world. She pointed to research stating small class sizes have positive effects on teens as a similar example.

Arsenault also said the time change could have a negative impact on low-income students, who might not be able to get to after-school jobs on time if school hours are extended.

“Have you surveyed our student population to find out how many are employed? Have you further explored the reason for that employment?” she said. “Is it for gas money or is it for rent? Is it for a trip to Starbucks or is it for groceries for your family?”

Board member Sarah Jordan Thompson also proposed an amendment, which failed, to revert start times to their pre-pandemic hours for one year. Thompson said she does not believe the board did enough community outreach before enacting the change.

“I’m not overly thrilled as to how this has all happened so that’s why I’ll be voting against it,” she said.

Chair Emily Figdor said the board may want to start thinking differently about middle school and high school start times in light of the concerns raised at the meeting. 

“I will say that no, this policy isn’t ideal, we’re getting only part way,” Figdor said. “And we haven’t had the robust public process that I think many of us know is really critical.”