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High School Students and the New York City Commute

Current school start times must change to reflect the reality of older students' trips to school.

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Dedicated to using the process of storytelling to advocate for a better world for all. Passionate about including the youth in the conversation about change. Usually contemplating the meaning of life after reading a profound line in a book.

(Image Source: Lemons)

The alarm blares at 5:30 A.M. I turn it off and pull up the blinds next to my bed, only to reveal the still darkness from the night. After a heavy sigh and multiple minutes of staring at the ceiling in empty thought, I get off my bed and begin my morning by checking the arrival times of the D-train to my subway station. 6:32 A.M., 6:45 A.M., 6:58 A.M. The commute is about 30 minutes, school starts at 8 A.M, it takes about 15 minutes to check in to school and get all of my stuff from my locker, and it’s a combined seven-minute walk from my home to the station and from the station to school. Ok, I should probably get on the 6:45 train.

The subway is one of, if not, the most popular forms of transportation in New York. However, while it is widely used, it is not properly maintained. Descending the steps is like entering some type of underworld, with the air quality significantly declining along with the sanitation as well. Rats are frequently observed crawling across the train tracks, running into hiding as the squealing subway train arrives. The nauseating smell of urine wafts through the air, which is especially sickening during the warmer spring and summer months. And yet, a large crowd still assembles to wait for their royal escort.

The subway transit system is inescapable in New York, regardless of whether an individual possesses a personal means of transportation like cars, bicycles, etc. Sometimes, it is just more convenient to travel by train to avoid the misery of finding parking in the crowded city streets. So while the early school start times were intended to conveniently align the schedules of parents, over 310,000 students find themselves endeavoring to catch a train in the early hours of the morning.

After arriving at the subway station, a distance that could vary between a ten- or twenty-minute walk for some, teens struggle to navigate their way through the rush-hour crowds on the platform simply to find a spot to stand comfortably. Some overhead platforms —platforms above ground—also pose the challenge of the cold during the winter and fall months, with the crisp but icy morning winds piercing through thick winter jackets. Then, on the other hand, the humidity of the spring and summer months bring with it the suffocating hot air that only worsens with every additional body joining the crowd in the underground platforms. 

Missing the train is evident, and can set students back any amount of time between five to twenty minutes. The perfectly aligned schedule that accounted for the average 32-minute commute is then entirely derailed. This issue is only heightened with students who live farther from their schools than their classmates. In a 2011-2012 census, over 1 in 5 high school students found themselves on a train ride of at least 45-minutes. 

All of these obstacles to overcome at 6:45 in the morning.

Students have been protesting earlier school start times for years, and while some schools have adjusted their start times to later ones, most haven’t. Indeed, all students have to account for the commute time from their home to school, but New York students face the additional obstacle of the New York subway, an entirely arbitrary force that can sometimes change the course of their entire morning.

Should one extend the protest to account for the incredibly time-consuming schlep that is a subway commute, the cause suddenly becomes remarkably more compelling. It would create empathy, at least in the City, for the young teens who must endure the same pains as working adults. Perhaps then will the NYC DOE truly and finally consider delaying school start times so that, maybe then, I could at least catch the 7 A.M. train.