LET US SLEEP! Open Letter to School Districts

I’m a 2014 Irondequoit High School grad, and as a member of TALKBACK4Teens, I’m writing to urge you to consider adopting a 9 a.m. school start time.
I’m not the person you would expect to be authoring this. I was never someone to complain that school was too early. I’m a morning person, and I have no trouble falling asleep at 10 p.m. In high school, I asked my boss at the school pool to give me the 5:45 morning shift.

But I’m also a hard believer in logical policymaking based in concrete data and evidence. And in my book, that trumps my own anecdotal experience. So here’s the data and evidence.

When I attended IHS the first bell was at 7:53 a.m., but most kids had to get there earlier than that in order to ask teachers questions on homework, attend morning extracurriculars meetings, or get themselves to homeroom on time. But, the American Academy of Pediatrics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and American Medical Association all recommend that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. This is absolutely perplexing to me. Those organizations aren’t amateurs—they’re literally the authorities on health, and their recommendations are backed by essentially irrefutable evidence. So why aren’t we heeding their recommendation?

Chronic sleep deprivation is playing a huge role in the lives of our country’s youth. Teens need 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep a night to fully function—70% of U.S. high school students are getting less than 8, and that’s on school nights. 4 out of 10 students are getting less than six hours. That’s 70% of our nation’s teenagers that get insufficient sleep. You can wave it off and say that teens get by just fine on seven hours of sleep, or that kids just need to get to bed earlier, but to do so would be to ignore the science. First of all, teenagers can’t survive on seven hours of sleep without negative consequences—that’s something any sleep scientist or researcher will tell you. Second, it’s not teenager’s faults that they can’t get to bed early. Teens have sleep-wake cycles that are one to two hours later than everybody else; most get their best sleep between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m. So yes, our youth are sleep deprived. And in teens, that’s associated with obesity, migraines, weak immune systems, aggression, substance abuse, depression, and suicidal tendencies. Is that what we want for our students?

One of the keys to solving our youth’s sleep problem is later school start times. If the first bell rang later, it would allow students to sleep in until their body clocks were actually ready to wake up, giving them more of the rest they need. The good news? Well rested teenagers means good things for almost everybody. Districts across the country have begun shifting their start times, and they’ve seen a wave of positive benefits. The schools in those communities have seen reduced tardiness and sleeping in class, as well as improved attendance, grades, motivation, graduation rates and standardized test scores—academic improvements have proven to benefit disadvantaged students twice as much. But the effects go outside of the classroom, too. A major, multi-state study conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota and the CDC linked later high school start times to significant decreases in teen substance abuse, depression, and consumption of caffeinated drinks. Students perform better in athletics, too. Not only that, but almost every school district that’s moved their start time back has seen a decrease in teenage automobile accidents—one community saw them drop by 70 percent. In TALKBACK4Teen’s episode on teen Sleep, I interviewed Heidi Connolly, Chief of Pediatric Sleep Medicine at the University of Rochester’s Golisano Children’s Hospital. She strongly advocated for later school start times, stating “Since our major job is to keep teenagers safe and to keep them learning, it’s really a good thing to move those school start times later… it’s the best thing for teenagers’ health.”

Yes, changing school start times would pose initial challenges, but the long term benefits would far outweigh the work needed to adjust. In fact, all of the districts that have already done it reported minimal interruption to school, extracurricular, and parent activities. And anyway, change is almost always logistically inconvenient and politically uncomfortable. But we can’t keep using that as an excuse to continue compromising the health and success of the students whose growth and wellness is the core of your job. Please, let’s start a dialogue around how to do what’s best for the youth of our community.
Clara Wagner
Lead Host & Segment Producer

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Categories: Article, Editorial, Guest Posts


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