Some New York City families were jolted recently when numerous public elementary, middle and high schools in all five boroughs unexpectedly announced they would be adjusting their hours of operation starting September 2023. Instead of opening their doors at 8:30 a.m., many were shifting to beginning instruction at 8:15 a.m. or even 8 a.m.
A parent who requested to remain anonymous says “there was no discussion of this at all, or explanation, just an utter surprise change mid-summer. I was wondering if there’s a policy change or UFT (United Federation of Teachers) contract thing.”
Stacy S., an elementary school mom, says she was told the change “was due to contract,” while another parent who wanted their name withheld says they heard from a teacher that “the teachers at the school got to vote on their start/end times this year.”
When contacted for comment, Department of Education Deputy Press Secretary Chyann Tull told Epicenter that “each school determines their own start and end time provided that the work day for teachers does not start before 8 a.m. or end after 3:45 p.m. (or 4:20 p.m. on certain days for single-session high schools) in compliance with the UFT contract.”
When it comes to middle and high school students, the research is clear: The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that middle and high schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later to give students the opportunity to get the amount of sleep they need. During puberty, adolescents become sleepy later at night and need to sleep later in the morning as a result in shifts in biological rhythms.
A later start time leads to better attendance and even higher grades for teens. A Brooking study found that “Middle school students—especially middle school boys—are also less likely to be suspended after their school switches to a later start time. For instance, after a one-hour delay in start time, middle school boys are 2.5 percentage points less likely to ever be suspended during the year.”
However, some NYC schools see the benefit of an earlier schedule.
Ramón Javier, Head of School at George Jackson Academy, NYC’s only independent middle school for academically talented boys from families of all incomes, reports that GJA’s day begins at 8 a.m. as “a symphony of empowerment and camaraderie, orchestrated with purposeful rituals that set the stage for a day of growth and connection. With the first rays of sunlight, our boys embark on an educational journey designed to ignite their passion for learning and foster a sense of belonging.”
Eva Moskowitz, CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, which welcomes their high school students at 7:45 a.m., their middle schoolers at 8 a.m. and their elementary students at 7:45 a.m., says “having a longer school day allows us to offer everything we want our kids to enjoy, K-12 — not only robust literacy and math instruction, but project-based learning, daily science, recess, blocks and choice time for our youngest scholars, as well as electives like chess, art, sports, and, for older scholars, engineering and computer science.”
The research on an ideal time for starting elementary school learning is less codified. Parents, nonetheless, grieved over the shift.
Mom Jaye Fox explained that her child “has a medical needs bus that was picking her up at 7:10. Shifting the school day earlier is going to be so hard on kids with long commutes. It’s very concerning how that’s going to work with the earlier hours, and when they’ll want to pick her up in the morning.”
Janelle Kemp of Brooklyn, mother to three school-aged children, says “my husband and I are not happy about this change. It is very disruptive to our morning schedules. It’s already a struggle to get out of the house after getting all five of us ready.”
Another Brooklyn parent, Jonathan Baylis, minced no words: “We hate anything that’s earlier. Whose idiotic idea was this? Give us more sleep, not less.”
One mom says she thinks “schools should stop marking and accounting for lateness if they will make start times earlier. It’s already a lot of pressure on parents and children, but it also affects out-of-zone students disproportionately if they are trying to increase diversity by including out-of-zone students. They are at a disadvantage when they rely on NYC public transportation and are not within walking distance of the school.”
A parent in Queens confirmed this. “Our school is outside of our zone. My main concern is whether my child will get enough sleep. Even right now putting her to bed on time is an everyday battle. And now, I need to put her to bed even earlier! The frequency of days when she is tired and cranky will definitely increase,” they say. “We’ll likely be late to school more often than before the change. My first reaction to the news was to look up the start times in Connecticut and NJ.”
An earlier start time may make morning and nighttime routines more difficult for parents, but when it comes to elementary school students, research suggests that, unlike their adolescent older siblings, kindergarteners through fifth graders actually might benefit from a sunrise commencement.
According to Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Eric Zhou, “For the elementary age group… [school] somewhere around 7:30, 8 in the morning is… aligned with their circadian rhythm.”
Brinton Parson, head of the pre-K through fifth grade Alexander Robertson School agrees. “Our classes begin at 8 a.m. when elementary aged school children are at their freshest, so every grade starts the day with a math class,” she says. “On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, children may even come to school at 7:30 a.m. for the ‘Poetry at Dawn’ class.”
At worst, the effect of an early start time for elementary school students is neutral. A study published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis found little variation in test scores, attendance, and suspension rates outcomes at schools which start before 8 a.m., before 8:45 a.m. and after 8:45 a.m..
Vinny Dotoli, head of the K-8 Harlem Academy, sees reasons beyond academics for an early start. “Opening our doors at 7:15 a.m. helps to accommodate a range of family circumstances,” he says. “Arriving before 8 a.m. also ensures that our students have time to enjoy a healthy breakfast in the café and to get organized and transition productively to the start of class.”
When it comes to public school meals, “our Office of Food and Nutrition Services works with each school to ensure that breakfast is provided for students,” says press secretary Tull.
Will an earlier start time impact you and your child’s schedule for the 2023-2024 year? Sound off in the comments!