Switching to later bell hours benefits students, says Ontario school principal

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TORONTO – A wave of international research suggesting postponing high school start times would have health and educational benefits for students has yet to peak in Canada.

Several boards and schools have embraced the growing number of global studies suggesting that early start times are at odds with teens’ natural sleep patterns and can hamper both their academic progress and mental health.

But Canadian officials have yet to join their international counterparts in recommending later bell hours, and researchers are only beginning to examine the impact of school hours on Canadian students.

However, some school boards are considering testing the idea.

A school board in northwestern Ontario has done this before and said the experiment was a success.

The Keewatin-Patricia District School Board decided to “harmonize” class start times three years ago, pushing high school start times up to one hour in some cases.

Board education director Sean Monteith said he has been championing change for years, saying there were particularly compelling reasons to put the policy in place in a school board that spans two time zones and is aimed at many students in remote areas. Indigenous communities.

The early start times associated with long commutes, he said, have a clear impact on students.

“The children were failing. The children were giving up. They were not doing well,” Monteith said in a telephone interview. “Continuing to allow the same historic practice to the detriment of children who drop out was simply unacceptable.”

Students in the board’s six secondary schools now start their day at 9 a.m., up to 50 minutes later than before the policy came into effect in 2014.

The practical benefits were immediately apparent, Monteith said, adding that the move allowed the board to improve course choices by coordinating e-learning opportunities across the vast territory its schools serve.

Monteith said the success of the change is evident in the drop in dropout rates and increased attendance numbers he has seen over the past three years. But the real test will take place at the end of the new school year, when the board has a chance to see if the new approach has improved graduation rates for the first cohort who will start classes later throughout their life. of high school.

Monteith’s results would come as no surprise to researchers who studied the effects of extra sleep on student performance.

Numerous studies in the United States and Europe document not only widespread sleep deprivation in adolescents, but also the effects of this deprivation on many aspects of their lives.

Lack of sleep has been linked to challenges in everything from school performance to obesity to mental illness.

The evidence was compelling enough to prompt the American Academy of Pediatrics to name sleep deprivation as a public health problem for adolescents and to specifically name school start times as a factor.

Last year, a team of researchers from McGill University set out to assess the state of back-to-school hours in Canada and their potential impact on students’ sleep patterns.

The study, published in the Journal of Sleep Research, showed an average start time of 8:43 a.m. among the 362 schools sampled. They also found that the later the opening bell rang, the more time students spent in bed.

Study participants aged 10 to 18 got three more minutes of sleep for each 10-minute delay in the start hour of their schooling.

Lead researcher Genevieve Gariepy said those extra minutes all help align the school day with the average body clock of adolescents, which works differently than adults or young children.

“What happens is that our circadian rhythms… are shifted by about an hour or two when puberty begins. So teens tend to fall asleep later and wake up later,” a- she declared. “Teens usually fall asleep around 11 a.m. or midnight and wake up about eight hours later.”

Despite increasing research, few organizations have chosen to take the Keewatin-Patricia path and implement subsequent changes at all levels.

Some have taken the practice of allowing individual schools to try it.

One of these Toronto District School Board schools carried out a two-year project, starting classes at 10 a.m.

It reported largely positive results, such as better alertness in morning classes, lower absenteeism rates, generally improved grades, and no corresponding drop in extracurricular activities.

The school at the center of the experiment, however, has since closed and no other school in Toronto is currently starting classes late.

A school board in London, Ontario is currently looking to follow the same path.

The Thames Valley District School Board recently voted unanimously to test the idea of ​​later start times and is now looking for a school to volunteer to lead the effort.

Board chairman Matt Reid said a complete change would be complicated, citing the logistical challenges of changing current school bus schedules as well as potential resistance from parents or even students who are employed. after school.

But he said the project promised to provide important data that would both help the council decide how to proceed and contribute to the ongoing conversation about later start times.

“We’re going to be able to get that data back and we’re going to compare it, which is going to be the exciting part,” said Reid. “To really know, once and for all, if it’s something that benefits our students.”

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