A lot of things will change on Tuesday when my 13-year-old daughter starts eighth grade. She’ll be attending class in her bedroom, not at Williamsburg Middle School. She’ll be staring at a computer, not sitting in a classroom. And she’ll be making her own lunch in our kitchen, not buying lunch in the cafeteria. But one thing sure won’t change: Her school still starts at the foolishly early hour of 7:50 a.m.
That’s right, she’ll still need to drag her ass out of bed right around sunrise, way earlier than her teenage brain is ready to wake up. She’ll still need to eat breakfast alone in a silent kitchen and take a shower and collect her things while the morning dew is still on the ground. She’ll moan and groan about it, and rightly so. Because it didn’t have to be this way.
Administrators in our school district in Arlington, Virginia, spent a lot of time and energy trying to figure out how to transform the school experience for a very difficult year. But they didn’t transform local middle schools’ early start times. I had hoped that the experimentation and flexibility the coronavirus crisis has required of educators would mean our kids’ schools would seize the opportunity to make this simple change to the schedule, probably the easiest way to instantly improve student outcomes. When the announcement came that bell schedules would remain exactly the same for remote learning as they have always been for in-person learning, I was annoyed—and I wanted to know why.
It’s not as if other schools haven’t made changes for the better. I asked readers in the Slate Parenting Facebook group whether their kids were starting school later in 2020, and received a flood of responses. In Wickliffe, Ohio, middle school used to start at 7:30; this year students are asked to be online at 8:30. The Salem-Keizer school district in Oregon moved start times for middle and high school about an hour later, to 9. In Alamance County, North Carolina, middle school now starts at 8:30 and high school at 9, a shift of as much as 50 minutes. Even the next county over from us, Maryland’s Montgomery County, has moved all students to an 8:45 a.m. start time. “My 6th and 9th graders feel like it is the one real benefit of virtual learning!” wrote a Montgomery County parent.
When I spoke to Arlington’s assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, Bridget Loft, she told me that the bell-schedule decision was made based on the fact that, when planning the fall, the district remained hopeful that some students could return to physical school as early as October. Once kids are traveling to actual schools on actual school buses, the same transportation logjams that, she says, mandate early school starts in the first place come back into play. And so, for consistency’s sake, administrators decided not to institute a different schedule that might have to be changed just weeks into the school year.
Of course, just a few months after those decisions were made, it now seems depressingly unlikely that anyone will be returning to school as soon as October. Loft suggested that if things change, the district is open to rethinking the bell schedule. “We want to be flexible,” she said. “If we determine that it’s going to be some time before these health metrics mean we’re going to be able to move kids into hybrid learning, then that gives us the luxury of time to reconsider moving start times later.”
I told Loft it was disappointing that the district didn’t take this opportunity to change, and asked if schools were just too overwhelmed trying to keep up with shifting demands to really experiment effectively. “It’s too early to tell,” she said. In the spring, “we were building the plane while flying it,” introducing distance learning midsemester, which allowed teachers and administrators some leeway. Now, she said, “We’re trying to ease back into some reflection of what last fall looked like.”
But of course it won’t look like last fall, and maintaining the worst parts of last fall—like a too-early start time—hardly makes up for the loss of all the best parts of last fall, like friends, clubs, band, and sports. The notion that an online school day must hew to the shape and schedule of an analog school day is in itself a fallacy, one that ignores all the ways online learning differs from in-person learning. (Don’t get me started on schools that are giving kids four-minute “breaks” between classes because that’s how much time they got to go to their lockers in the Before Times.)
Parents in the Facebook group who were also teachers pointed to some other possible rationales for sticking with an early schedule. In some districts, school schedules are written into the teacher contracts and are difficult to change. And bell schedules affect teachers—not only their workdays but their child care situation as well. One teacher pointed out that when the district where she works moved bell schedules later, she suddenly faced increased day care costs for her own kids.
And many made the same case as Loft, essentially: that when kids inevitably go back to school, it will be a big hassle to change the schedules all over again. I remain unconvinced on that front. When kids do start returning to school, it’s going to be an enormous, chaotic clusterfuck that messes up everyone’s lives. Adding the inconvenience of a changing bell schedule to that disaster, in exchange for making the next one, two, or six months of school way better for kids, seems like a pretty fair trade. Loft even mentioned that in Arlington, the return to school could introduce bus delays so profound that schools … might be forced to delay the first bell. So why not just start now?!?
Montgomery County, right across the border in Maryland, also doesn’t know what school will look like whenever kids return and they have to figure out all new schedules, but that didn’t stop them from seizing this chance, said Gboyinde Onijala, a spokeswoman for MCPS: “Budgetary impediments have meant we could never really fully implement what parents have been asking for for many, many years, which was later start times. But this new virtual world opened up an opportunity.”
I know that I sound churlish, just another parent complaining about how their kid’s school isn’t accommodating their wishes. But the science is so crystal clear on this issue: Teenagers should start school later. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that middle and highschool students should not begin school until 8:30 a.m., but as of 2014, CDC research shows, the vast majority of U.S. schools started earlier than that. As a result, teenagers, with their stay-up-late circadian rhythms, don’t get enough sleep and are at greater risk for depression and other poor health outcomes. And letting kids go to school just a little later has such an instant, salutary effect on their educational experience: In a 2018 study, students at two Seattle-area high schools whose starting bell was moved back from 7:50 to 8:45 a.m. decreased tardiness and absences, and improved their final grades by 4.5 percent.
Public schools are facing enormous—essentially impossible—challenges this fall. I’ll do my best to remember that when things go wrong, and I hope I’ll be forgiving of the stumbles schools are sure to make along the way. But every morning at 7:50, when my half-asleep 13-year-old logs on, I’ll remain bitter that my local schools could have made one simple choice that would have made everything easier for just about everyone—and they didn’t.