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HomeEducationSchoolEarly school start times gain attention going into school year

Early school start times gain attention going into school year

sleepyteenIf you’ve been having trouble waking up your teens this week take heart. The American Academy of Pediatrics has joined the fight to start the school day later for middle and high school students.

In a new policy statement published online this week, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends middle and high schools delay the start of class to 8:30 a.m. or later. Doing so will align school schedules to the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents, whose sleep-wake cycles begin to shift up to two hours later at the start of puberty, the statement said.

“Chronic sleep loss in children and adolescents is one of the most common – and easily fixable – public health issues in the U.S. today,” said pediatrician Dr. Judith Owens, lead author of the policy statement “School Start Times for Adolescents,” published in the September 2014 issue of Pediatrics.

Anne Arundel County has been studying the issue and is awaiting a report from a task force assessing school start times. The report is due to the Board of Education this fall.

Interim Superintendent Mamie J. Perkins formed the 15-person task force last winter to examine the county’s school start times — which are apparently some of the earliest in the nation.

Perkins charged the task force with researching and developing options regarding school start times at all levels, taking into consideration the work previously conducted within AACPS and by other districts of comparable size as well as relevant medical, social and behavioral research regarding students and school performance. She also asked the task force to carefully review the financial and non-financial implications of altering school start and end times.

“The task force has been meeting since February to study research, consider impacts on various issues relating to schedule changes in other districts, learn about transportation software and explore creative solutions,” said Heather Macintosh, co-founder of the Anne Arundel County chapter of Start School Later and member of the task force. “The benefits to student health of a later high school start time is accepted by the group, and we have moved beyond the question of ‘should we start later?’ to ‘how?'”

Teens chronically sleep deprived

Studies show that adolescents who don’t get enough sleep often suffer physical and mental health problems, an increased risk of automobile accidents and a decline in academic performance, according to the AAP. But getting enough sleep each night can be hard for teens whose natural sleep cycles make it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m. – and who face a first-period class at 7:30 a.m. or earlier the next day.

Many studies have documented that the average adolescent in the U.S. is chronically sleep-deprived and pathologically sleepy. A National Sleep Foundation poll found 59 percent of sixth through eighth graders and 87 percent of high school students in the U.S. were getting less than the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep on school nights, according to the AAP statement.

The policy statement is accompanied by a technical report, “Insufficient Sleep in Adolescents and Young Adults: An Update on Causes and Consequences,” also published online this week. The technical report updates a prior report on excessive sleepiness among adolescents that was published in 2005.

The reasons for teens’ lack of sleep are complex, and include homework, extracurricular activities, after-school jobs and use of technology that can keep them up late on week nights, according to the statement. The AAP recommends pediatricians counsel teens and parents about healthy sleep habits, including enforcing a media curfew. The AAP also advises health care professionals to educate parents, educators, athletic coaches and other stakeholders about the biological and environmental factors that contribute to insufficient sleep.

But the evidence strongly suggests that a too-early start to the school day is a critical contributor to chronic sleep deprivation among American adolescents, according to the statement. An estimated 40 percent of high schools in the U.S. currently have a start time before 8 a.m.; only 15 percent start at 8:30 a.m. or later. The median middle school start time is 8 a.m., and more than 20 percent of middle schools start at 7:45 a.m. or earlier.

The AAP urges middle and high schools to aim for start times that allow students to receive 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep a night. In most cases, this will mean a school start time of 8:30 a.m. or later, though schools should also consider average commuting times and other local factors.

“The AAP is making a definitive and powerful statement about the importance of sleep to the health, safety, performance and well-being of our nation’s youth,” Owens said. “By advocating for later school start times for middle and high school students, the AAP is both promoting the compelling scientific evidence that supports school start time delay as an important public health measure, and providing support and encouragement to those school districts around the country contemplating that change.”

Anne Arundel studying school transportation

The Anne Arundel task force has realized that without transportation software for planning bus routes, they are limited in the ability to run through creative ‘what-if ‘ scenarios and determine the impacts, costs and logistics of each, Macintosh said. Changing high school start times alone would require expanding the bus fleet, so an alternative is to redesign the schedule of all levels to see how that works.

In a survey conducted last winter, parents were split on the issue of starting schools 13 minutes later. Of the 7,000 plus who responded to the survey, 51 percent were against the schedule change and 49 percent were in favor of it.

Terra Ziporyn Snider, the executive director and cofounder of the Start School Later movement, called the survey poorly designed, giving respondents only a single solution and a limited ability to respond to that option.

“If we want the schedule that is healthy and safe for ALL kids.. and one that allows them to learn when they’re at their best and brightest, we need to get behind the idea of a new schedule,” Macintosh said. “So many of our students are working at half-speed because of the miss-match between school hours and normal teen sleep hours. We have the ability to fix that and we need to be willing to focus on the benefits and work through the challenges.”

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