District confirms 9 a.m. start time for next year

by Sarah Wei, News Editor
graphic by Emily Cheng

On April 12, South announced plans to adopt a later start and end time for the 2021-2022 school year. The announcement followed shortly after the Newton Public Schools Fall Planning Team — a group composed of School Committee members, assistant superintendents, Newton Teachers Association members, building administrators and parent representatives — formally endorsed the plan on April 6. Under the new schedule, the school day will start at 9 a.m. and end at 3:45 p.m.

Although the change may seem sudden, the decision to switch from the pre-pandemic 7:40 a.m. start time comes after six years of research within the district.  

Even before the district began its lengthy process to change start times, Assistant Superintendent Toby Romer said that research emerged showing that late start times could improve student well-being. 

“The schedule is designed around key values identified by the scheduling committee, [which include] ensuring students can thrive socially, emotionally and academically, maintain academic excellence and breadth and create time for student support and faculty collaboration during the day,” he said. 

School Committee Chair Ruth Goldman said that the start time’s shift was also based on pre-existing studies of high schoolers’ circadian rhythms. 

“Our [9:00 a.m.] time is something that’s supported by all the public health and pediatricians,” she said. “There’s a lot of research and evidence that students, as they get to adolescence, their biological clock shifts.”

More specifically within the South community, School Committee member Bridget Ray-Canada said that the decision was weighted in consideration of effects on students, which were measured by multiple studies over the years.

“The process involved surveys, a traffic study, high school schedule change, a webinar this year and iterations of options,” she said. “Various start time options were evaluated based on a traffic study to determine their transportation costs, impact to [Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity] METCO Boston families, transport times, athletics impact and impacts to other school levels’ start time.”

Student feedback was also an essential part of the decision, Ray-Canada said.

“[A] late start improves mental ability and mood due to more sleep, which also reduces physical health risk,” she said. “During the pandemic, we received positive feedback that having a late start schedule had a positive impact as students were more engaged and alert in their classes this year.”

Although many students indicated satisfaction with the change, the decision was met with mixed reactions. In an anonymous survey sent on June 1 with a sample of 236 students, respondents were asked in the first question to rate their opinions regarding the time change on a scale of one to five, one being that they actively disliked and five being that they strongly approved.

Although there was no particular stand-out rating, the majority of students rated their decision from three to five. The option of four was the most prominent, with 65 students, or 27.5% of the sample. The rating of five was the second-most common, receiving votes from 53 students (22.5%). 

In addition to the positive responses, Freshman Esther Dansinger said she prefers the late starting time due to the flexibility it provides.

“It gives me more time in the mornings to sleep in or eat a good breakfast and just take time in general,” she said. 

Many students, however, were unhappy with the later ending time, particularly those participating in extracurriculars and athletics. Sophomore Jaray Liu said that the new schedule conflicts with his other activities, while detrimentally impacting  his sleep patterns.

“My extracurriculars don’t shift so it messes up my schedule,” he said. “All it really did was shift my sleep schedule back by two hours, so I don’t actually get more sleep.”

Sophomore senator and soccer player Lily Paltrowitz said the new schedule causes difficulties for student athletes.

“Only two teams maximum can enjoy the stadium lights, which leaves other teams to practice in the dark or not at all. In addition, high school games start at 4 p.m., so you have hundreds of kids missing over an hour of school for every game,” she said. “As a school that’s big on athletics and extracurriculars, we should be supporting those students, not making it more difficult for them.” 

Girls tennis coach Bob Jampol said that the change reflects South’s preference for academics over extracurriculars.

“Extracurricular activities mean a great deal to most students, and South used to pride itself that so many students participated in journalism, drama, athletics, speech and so forth,” he said. “Teens get a different kind of education in those kinds of endeavors, which should be valued as much as their academics.”

In response to the challenges that the new times pose for student-athletes, the district described potential solutions in its April 28 presentation. They proposed to move flex blocks to the end of the day on Tuesdays and Thursdays and to adjust game and practice times and add additional lighting for fields. 

Romer said that while he recognizes the challenges imposed on student-athletes, he believes that the positives of the change negate the disadvantages. 

“We feel the positive impact of flex times, fewer classes per day and a more balanced pace and schedule overall will benefit student-athletes and make it easier to balance the load of different activities,” he said.