Tensions flare at teen sleep talk
School start times continue to divide the Ridgefield community.
A presentation on adolescent sleep research elicited persistent murmurs from a crowd of about 65 residents Monday night at the East Ridge Middle School auditorium — with some folks leaving early in apparent frustration over the data provided by sleep physician Dr. Jennifer Papa Kannan.
The guest speaker, who was invited to town by the Board of Education, showed research that suggested adolescent children get better sleep later at night than young children.
“Adolescents have a decreased sleep drive; you know at 11 o’clock they’re raring to go,” she told the audience.
The idea of pushing high school start times back to start later, while having elementary or middle schools start earlier, irked many in the crowd.
Kannan fielded questions from parents in attendance for about 45 minutes.
“With so many factors involved in adolescent sleep, how can you recommend later start times [as a solution]?” one parent asked, citing research that the blue light from computer and phone screens interfere with humans’ ability to sleep.
A number of parents questioned Kannan’s research following her presentation, claiming the physician weighed the needs of high school students over those of elementary students.
Several parents were overheard at the end of the meeting complaining that Kannan had ignored their question, or had only provided a half-answer.
During the question-and-answer period, one parent asked if waking their elementary school student up at 6 a.m. was appropriate.
Kannan said that every child’s sleep needs are different.
“I know it can be hard when I have to get my kid up early,” she said, “but there are work-arounds.”
She acknowledged that research surrounding school start times for pre-adolescent children is “a grey area … there’s not a lot of literature out there.”
Raise of hands
Questions were asked anonymously via notecard, and read aloud by Superintendent Karen Baldwin.
The room overwhelmingly featured parents of elementary students.
“Where are my elementary parents?” Kannan called into the crowd, after reading one of the questions concerning elementary students’ sleep.
About half the people in the room put their hands in the air.
Kannan pointed out that Ridgefield had the resources to make the change.
“I think every community needs to look at its resources, and let’s be honest, Ridgefield has tremendous resources,” Kannan said.
“You all are very fortunate, and I think you should take advantage of the literature,” she added, referring to medical literature that lays out the benefits of delayed start times.
At least one parent asked whether there would be a public vote on the matter.
Baldwin responded to that question, explaining that while the Board would ultimately make the decision over a later start time, they would put out a survey to the community before rendering a final decision at the end of October.
While Kannan said she recognized the challenges the change to a later start time could bring to the community, she argued against seeing the issue of adolescent sleep as harmless.
“You do not want a catastrophic event — a motor vehicle accident, or a suicide — you want the preventative option,” she said, when asked whether she believed a 7:25 start time was harmful to children.
“The common misconception is that ‘Oh I got through going to school at 7, and my kid can too,’ but people used to not wear seatbelts, and doctors used to smoke. We know more now.”
Members of a town Facebook group shared a petition Saturday Sept. 16, to keep school start times the same.
The petition gathered 229 signatures as of Tuesday, Sept. 19.
A second online petition — for a public hearing over the start times — also launched over the weekend and had already gained 113 signatures as of Tuesday, Sept. 19.
“I strongly feel that the community at large should have the opportunity to share their thoughts and opinions to the Board of Education in a similar fashion to how we handle feedback about the proposed school budget,” said resident Suzanne Sherter in the petition.