AUGUSTA — A bill that would allow Maine high schoolers to tap the snooze button a few more times got mixed reviews before the Legislature’s Education Committee on Wednesday.

The legislation offered by Rep. Matthea Daughtry, D-Brunswick, would prohibit public high schools in Maine from starting school days before 8:30 a.m. Daughtry, who tried to pass similar legislation in 2015, said the measure is based on a growing body of medical science that shows the developing brains of adolescents causes them to have vastly different sleep patterns than children or adults.

Daughtry told her fellow committee members the bill is inspired, in part, by her own high school experience.

“In 2005, I was sleepy,” Daughtry said. “And I’m not talking about that groggy feeling we all experience come Monday morning. I’m talking about that detrimental kind of sleepy where it seems like everyday activities are a strain.” A high schooler at the time, Daughtry said she struggled, as many teenagers do, to stay awake during her classes at Brunswick High School, which started at 7:55 a.m.

She said that since her sleepless high school years, evidence has emerged suggesting American teenagers don’t get enough sleep. Citing a 2006 study of the National Sleep Foundation, Daughtry said 87 percent of high school students were not getting the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep their bodies need. She said part of that is because teenage brains don’t get sleepy as early in the evening as adult brains and they take longer to wake up.

Daughtry’s allies include the Maine Association of School Nurses and other Democratic lawmakers on the committee who said the science shows Maine should join states such as California and Utah and do right by high school students.

But opponents, including the Maine Principals’ Association and the Maine School Management Association, say a law forcing all high schools in Maine to have the same start time isn’t as easy as it sounds.

RURAL DISTRICTS WORRY ABOUT COSTS

Dick Durost, the MPA’s executive director, said a later start time can complicate everything from busing routes and schedules to after-school activities and athletics. Durost said the MPA, which includes 840 principals and assistant principals in Maine, doesn’t dispute the scientific research, but students and their parents are ultimately responsible for when a teenager decides to go to bed.

He said the MPA opposes the bill, L.D. 468, for multiple reasons, including that it could get expensive for rural schools that may have to add bus routes to accommodate a later start time. Many school districts in rural Maine have lengthy bus routes that serve both elementary and secondary students.

While a handful of school districts in Maine have moved to later start times for high schools, they are largely in more densely populated school systems in southern Maine that can either push both elementary and high school start times back or swap the start times for elementary and high schools. Durost said elementary students typically have early bedtimes and wakeup times, and disrupting sleep patterns for those students could be detrimental to them. Many districts also share staff and facilities such as cafeterias between high schools and elementary schools.

Durost said school athletics and early releases for competitions also would be affected, and while some schools don’t travel far for their away games, others, particularly those in rural northern Maine, can travel up to four hours one-way to a game. “There would be significant issues in the completion of varsity games,” Durost said, “and almost no opportunity for junior varsity games that often follow.”

Elaine Tomaszewski, acting deputy executive director of the Maine School Management Association, an association for school superintendents and school boards, said the association also is opposed to a mandated start time.

“School boards and superintendents oppose this bill not because we believe a later start time for high school is a bad decision, but because it must be a local one,” Tomaszewski said. “It is a decision that should grow out of a dialogue in the community, involving students, staff, parents and taxpayers.”

SEVERAL STATES CONTEMPLATING CHANGES

But Mary Beth Bachman, the school nurse at Falmouth High School and a representative of the Maine School Nurses Association, told the committee that a later start time is in the best health interests of teens. “Developmental and physiological changes in adolescent sleep contribute to shifts in nighttime sleep times and later bedtimes, but not necessarily a decrease in sleep requirements,” Bachman said.

She said teens’ use of electronic devices – whether for video gaming or school work – also affects the quality of their sleep. Bachman, who has worked as a school nurse for 20 years, said at the high school level she has students in her office taking naps almost daily because they are unable to stay awake in class.

Tracey Collins, the southern Maine chapter leader for the national organization Start School Later, which advocates for later start times for high schools nationwide, offered testimony that was neither for nor against Daughtry’s bill.

Collins said her group was successful in getting the school boards in Saco, Biddeford and Dayton to move to a later start time for teens beginning last fall. She said the science is clear and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, and the National School Nurses Association, as well as 12 other national health and medical organizations, all were in agreement on later start times.

Collins said later start times at Saco Middle School, which previously started at 7:15 a.m., has resulted in a dramatic decrease in visits to the nurse’s office by students. “They are providing less medication, they are sending less kids home from school and kids are reporting less anxiety,” Collins said.

She said Maine was one of seven states contemplating legislation for later starts, and that only two states, Utah and Maryland, had actually taken action related to later starts. Utah passed a resolution suggesting late starts, she said, and Maryland’s law provides incentives and certifications for schools that adopt late starts. Collins also noted that California is considering a bill that would have “real teeth” and mandate late starts.

INCENTIVES AND PENALTIES

Collins encouraged the committee to consider various options, including providing both incentives and penalties for schools. She also suggested that they craft a law that gives schools the flexibility to find collaborative solutions to the various problems a later start for older students might create, including child care issues, since many parents depend on older siblings to help with younger children before and after school.

Heather Fairfield, a South Portland parent and advocate for later start times for teens, said her school district accomplished the change, which will take effect next year, with no additional costs to the school budget. Fairfield said if parents, teachers and administrators are dedicated to making the change and working together, it can be done. Fairfield also said she wished there was a statewide law requiring later start times because that would be the “nudge” schools need to make the change happen faster.

Lawmakers on the committee will vote either for or against Daughtry’s proposal after work sessions in the weeks ahead before sending the bill to the full Legislature for consideration.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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