Miami-Dade District Considers Later School Bells, Weighing Science Against Logistics

Jan 13, 2020

Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said he believes in science, and the science is clear: Adolescents aren’t getting enough sleep, and experts believe later school start times could fix that.

But Carvalho said he understands that pushing back the first bell to no earlier than 8 a.m. could be a logistical nightmare for students, parents and school employees — and he insisted the district won’t do it unless there’s community support.

“There’s nothing in this for me. I am driven by what’s right for kids, and I cannot deny what the research says,” Carvalho said during a town hall Monday at Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High School.

During the event — the first of at least three forums on the topic — Carvalho fielded questions about two proposed models for changing school schedules now under consideration by the Miami-Dade school board.

Currently, high schools start at 7:20 a.m. Because a majority of students attend “choice” programs like magnet schools rather than the schools they’re zoned for based on where they live, many have to travel relatively long distances. Some students board their buses as early as between 5 and 5:30 a.m., Carvalho said. Elementary and middle schools start anywhere from 8:30 to 9:10 a.m. now.

Under the new proposals, elementary schools would start at 8 a.m., and middle and high schools would start at either 8:30 or 9:30 a.m. The latest possible end time would be 4:30 p.m. The change could happen as soon as next school year or the year after, if it happens at all, Carvalho said.

Research shows adolescents experience a shift in circadian rhythms that makes them naturally inclined to fall asleep later, around 11 p.m., and wake up later. Experts recommend teens get eight to 10 hours of sleep every night. Early school start times can be a barrier to students getting enough sleep, and sleep deprivation can lead to medical problems like depression and obesity.

Medical organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association have endorsed school start times at 8:30 a.m. or later for high school students.

The district surveyed 2,000 students at dozens of Miami-Dade high schools in 2018-19 on the current start and end times. Three quarters of students reported being tired during class daily or often. Only 11 percent of students said they felt well-rested and alert when they arrive to school in the morning.

Carvalho recognized a series of scenarios in which later school start and end times could disrupt students’, parents’ and teachers’ lives: Some families might have multiple children attending a mix of elementary, middle and high schools. Some parents might not be able to take their kids to school later because of their own work schedules.

A quarter of the Miami-Dade district’s employees live in Broward County, and many have children enrolled in schools there. With the potential changes, the districts' schedules would be misaligned.

Also, students’ ability to play sports or do extracurricular activities and finish their homework could be affected.

Carvalho said the district was gathering feedback and working through how to address those concerns, but on many of them, he did not yet have specific answers.

Alondra Borge, 17, a junior at American High School in Hialeah, said the meeting was not as informative as she had hoped it would be.

Borge opposes the idea of later start times, because she said they would affect her after-school job at Dunkin’ Donuts. She often starts shifts at 3 p.m. She said she needs the money she earns at her job to pay for the many expenses of high school: trips, prom, graduation.

She argued the change might even defeat the purpose of helping teens get more sleep.

“If ... I’m working later, I’m going home later. I still have just as much homework," Borge said. "And then we’re going to sleep later than we were before, getting a few less hours.”

Labor unions are wary of how the proposed changes could affect their members.

Phyllis Leflore, president of AFSCME Local 1184, represents about 7,000 school district employees, including bus drivers and maintenance workers. She said the later afternoon bus routes could keep drivers from continuing their education or getting to other jobs.

“Some of our employees only make $10 an hour. They need two to three jobs to live in Miami-Dade County, so that’s the only way they can survive and take care of their family,” Leflore said. “This will affect my employees in a big way.”

Two more town halls are currently scheduled: Jan. 21 at Coral Reef Senior High School and Jan. 28 and Miami Jackson Senior High School. Both events start at 6:30 p.m.

Here are the current bell schedules and two new models under consideration: