State resolution puts school start times, once considered in Park City, in the spotlight
The Utah Legislature has passed a resolution regarding high school start times that, while not binding, nonetheless brings the childhood development issue into the spotlight in school districts around the state — including in Park City, where local school officials have spent significant time in recent years grappling with the topic.
Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, introduced the legislation. As a physician and a mother of teenagers herself, she said the issue of sleep-deprived children is near and dear to her.
“Anyone who has teens knows it is difficult to wake them up early in the morning,” she said. “But they aren’t lazy — they are in a unique developmental period. They are undergoing a host of biological changes, including brain development and sleep changes.”
Chief among those changes as they pertain to sleep is the body’s release of melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate a person’s sleep cycle. In the average adult, melatonin starts kicking in around 9 p.m. For the average teenager, health experts say, the body doesn’t release melatonin until 11 p.m. As a result, only one in 10 teens are getting the recommended nine hours of sleep.
“And this is putting them at risk for serious mental health, physical health and academic risks,” Harrison said.
Harrison’s resolution, H.C.R. 3, encourages Utah school districts and charter schools to consider the possible benefits and consequences of a later start to the school day for high schools. After winning support in the House earlier this month, the resolution was approved in the Senate Friday, sending it to the governor’s desk.
The resolution is nonbinding — it encourages districts to explore the change but doesn’t mandate it. That, Harrison said, is by design. For one thing, she said, addressing sleep deprivation in teenagers requires a holistic approach. It isn’t just the schools that need to adjust.
“There are many things parents, families, communities and school districts can do to help our kids get more sleep,” she said. “Looking at school start times is one thing that studies have shown can help kids get more sleep and is an important public policy discussion to have.”
For another, Harrison recognizes that a statewide mandated school start time is unworkable. Different communities have different needs. The emphasis, she said, is on local solutions.
“I’m hoping this resolution will encourage conversations at the local school district and community level to educate families about sleep science and have a local discussion about how to help our kids be as healthy and academically successful as possible,” she said. “This is not a mandate. I’m asking for conversations and innovative ideas for helping our kids.”
As many Park City parents are aware, the Park City School District was already having this discussion years ago, and was at one point set to change start times on its campuses beginning with the 2018-2019 school year after surveys revealed community support for the idea. The plan would have changed the district from having a three-tier schedule at its schools to a two-tier one, meaning all campuses would start school at one of two times, not three. Ecker Hill Middle School, McPolin Elementary School and Parley’s Park Elementary School would have been in session from 8:30 a.m. to 3:20 p.m. Jeremy Ranch Elementary School, Trailside Elementary School, Treasure Mountain Junior High and Park City High School would have started at 9:20 a.m. and ended at 4:10 p.m.
The Park City Board of Education rescinded the decision in March 2018, however. School Board President Andrew Caplan said at the time that the district was unprepared for the change, that it was too close to the start of the new school year and that students and parents needed more time to adjust their schedules.
The district also received pushback from members of the Park City Education Association. Benjamin Kahn, who was then co-president of the association, said at the time that some of his members felt there was a lack of transparency in the process. Meanwhile, there were also concerns that the change would put increased traffic on Kearns Boulevard at a time in the morning when congestion is already severe, particularly during the ski season.
The board’s draft budget at the time estimated it would cost the district $620,000 to transition to a two-tier school day, and the cost to outfit the district’s bus garage would be approximately $1 million.
Currently, classes at PCHS begin at 7:30 a.m., with Treasure Mountain Junior High starting five minutes later.
Park City School District officials declined to comment on H.C.R. 3 or to discuss whether they are still considering changing start times in the district. Melinda Colton, the district’s director of communications, instead provided The Park Record with a prepared statement:
“Park City School District is currently reviewing all aspects of the future of education in its comprehensive master planning process including the learning environment, student schedules, and transportation flow,” the statement reads. “We are pleased to continue our ongoing partnership with our community on all of these important topics.”
Harrison said she is looking forward to discussing the issue as a parent in her own community and seeing what works there.
“I would love to see some reasonable shifts in start times where feasible,” she said. “I also hope this will spur innovative ideas and solutions. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution for this.”
Harrison said in her research she has already seen some school districts make interesting changes to their schedules to allow their students to get more sleep.
“Some school districts are offering options for first period to allow more students to sleep in,” she said. “Other districts have shifted the timing of core classes versus electives or PE classes to accommodate later school start times so student athletes miss electives or PE rather than core classes the few times a semester when they need to leave for competitions or games.
“Other districts have found opportunities for improving efficiencies in transportation schedules or routes to help address transportation challenges in shifting times. The bright people in our communities and districts may come up with other ideas, but we won’t discover them unless more communities have the conversation about sleep science and high school start times.”
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It was an important decision since the rest of the talks will be heavily influenced by the processing option selected by the Planning Commission on Wednesday.