Winnipeg School Division explores later start times
ETHAN Harder’s alarm sounds at
7:30 a.m. every weekday.
An hour later, the 17-year-old is out the door of his home and on his way to Collège Garden City Collegiate.
By 8:45 a.m. Harder is sitting — and struggling to stay awake — in his firstperiod class.
“It’s pretty quiet. It’s us sitting there and listening to our teacher pretty much the whole time,” Harder said. “It’s pretty rough.”
Like many students across Canada, Harder fights to keep his eyes open and his attention on the lesson.
One-third of Canadian teenagers don’t get enough sleep and over-tired students are spilling into early morning classrooms.
That’s what a 2016 report from McGill University found when nearly
30,000 students between the ages of 10 and 18 were interviewed in 362 schools across the country.
According to the report, school administrators are beginning to see the effects that a lack of sleep can have on a developing mind — from an uptick in absences and failing grades, to the onset of mental health problems including depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
The report recommends teenagers tuck in for at least eight hours of sleep a night. With Canadian high school classes starting around 8:45 a.m. on average, and allowing an hour for morning routine and travel, a student should be in bed by 10:45 p.m. to get the right amount of sleep.
The problem is puberty, according to the McGill report.
Everyone has what’s called a circadian rhythm — an internal timer that tells the body when to sleep. During adolescence, a teenager’s rhythm is delayed up to two hours, making it difficult for most teens to fall asleep before 11:00 p.m. according to a study published in the Sleep Medicine journal and referenced by the McGill report.
The delay only becomes more pronounced when cellphones and screens are introduced into the equation. So, what’s the answer?
One possible solution is pushing school start times to 9:30 a.m. in order to give students a healthy and productive start to the day, the McGill report notes.
It’s a strategy that the Winnipeg School Division (WSD) is looking at implementing in its 14 secondary schools.
Last year, former WSD trustee Cathy Collins recommended the division prepare a report exploring the pros and cons of starting classes at 9:30 a.m., a half hour later than the current start time.
“Probably teens have had this problem for many years, but now there are studies about it,” Collins said. “To get to class on time, students are basically fighting their biology.”
While the data shows there is a problem with sleep among teens, not all agree a later start time in schools would actually benefit students.
Lucas Rodrigues, a teacher at Isaac Brock School, said he’s skeptical.
“It’s one of those things where we say we want teenagers to get more sleep, but then if they start an hour later they will just go to bed an hour later,” Rodrigues said.
“There’s not too many jobs that will have a late start time, so it’s not really prepping them for life after school.”
Rodrigues said he has had a few problems with Grade 9 students showing up late for his 9 a.m. social studies class, but didn’t believe a later start time would solve the issue.
“I found that kids are usually pretty good in the morning,” Rodrigues said. “There may be one kid who is extremely tired and yawning, but the kid will say they had been up all night playing Fortnite or some video game like that.”
The Winnipeg School Division is in the process of surveying staff, students and parents for the upcoming report, which will gauge interest in the delayed start time.
“This is not information unique to Winnipeg, it’s been looked at by school boards across the country,” Collins said. “But so far there has been little uptake on it.”
Schools in 46 U.S. states have adopted later start times, according to a delayed start time advocacy website, Start School Later. In Canada only five school boards have changed their start times, including the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board (KPDSB).
The KPDSB has six high schools across northwestern Ontario, spread over two time zones. Some rural schools in the division started as early as 7:45 a.m., meaning many students were catching the bus at 6:15 a.m. for a 90-minute bus ride.
For many schools in the district, specifically in northern communities, staff were faced with historically high dropout rates and decreasing graduation rates.
“Nobody seemed to be able to stop these drop-out rates,” director of education Sean Monteith said. “What was happening was these kids were just saying, ‘To hell with it, I’m not going to school.’”
At the start of the 2015-16 school year, KPDSB pushed all high school start times in the district to 9 a.m.
Monteith said it took a year for the division to fully implement the time change and it was not without challenges.
It took staff and students a while to get used to the later start time and the division had to work with employers to accommodate after-school jobs. Extracurricular sports programs had to be adjusted, as well, and bus schedules had to be changed to accommodate the students.
“The data shows that it worked,” said Monteith, who added that, anecdotally, he has seen an increase in attendance and passing grades.
For students like Harder, the extra sleep would be a welcome change.
“If starting at 9:30 a.m. is what would happen, I would like to see that and I think probably most kids would agree with me,” Harder said. “It could be pretty beneficial if used wisely.”
Student Ethan Harder, 17, says extra sleep time in the morning would make school easier.